Understanding Image Copyright

Rebecca Swift
Rebecca Swift Director of Creative Planning , iStockphoto

Posted on July 15th 2013

Understanding Image Copyright

ImageThe dawn of social media, 4G and connected devices such as smartphones and tablets has meant sharing photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is common practice. Inevitably, the rise in the number of platforms where individuals can easily access professional and amateur images alike has brought the age-old issue around copyright back to the fore.

High profile cases, like the closure of Napster at the turn of the century have meant consumers understand copyright rules when it comes to downloading music and video content, but it would seem that a number of misconceptions exist around image copyright.

Arguably, when it comes to image sharing on social media, we enter a bit of a grey area over who owns what. A lot of people believe that if the photographer/user puts the picture into the public domain like Twitter, it is free for anyone to use and replicate. The truth is that under the law, it is the photographer that owns the copyright. Twitter’s terms of service allows the platform to use the photo or video but not anyone else.   

A recent example of this issue being thrown into the limelight was the helicopter crash in London. The Evening Standard used an eye-witness image taken on a smartphone and then posted on Twitter as the front page splash.  

The rise of social media and connected devices has severely altered the way news is broken and subsequently reported. Smartphones have automatically made a lot of us ‘citizen journalists.’ When we witness something obscure, our gut reaction is to take a photo and then share it across our social media platforms for our friends and family to see. Consequently, news is often broken on social platforms first and therefore many journalists and picture desks use Twitter in a similar way to a news wire.

Nevertheless, it is vital to remember that no matter where they are posted or by whom, images remain bound by copyright.  The Evening Standard were aware of the copyright implications and claimed they were unable to get permission for use at the time of going to print, however were more than willing to reimburse the photographer should he want payment.

However, the result hasn’t always been so amicable. In the past, both The Wall Street Journal and Agence France Press were found by a judge to have infringed copyright laws by using photographer Daniel Morel’s images of the Haiti earthquake that were posted on Twitter.

If permission by the photographer is granted or an image is successfully purchased, it is also imperative that you have the correct licenses for images. For example, Apple was recently sued by a Swiss photographer for using an image commercially – i.e. for purposes that were not previously agreed. Rights-managed images typically hold restrictions on duration of use, geographic location or industry.

These are a few ways you can avoid breaching the copyright law:

  • Remember that images on social media hold the same copyright as other images. Just because they are posted in a public domain where sharing is encouraged, does not mean they are not protected by copyright
  • If you have not taken the photo, always make sure you ask the owner for permission to use it. Once you get permission, you then need to ensure you have the correct licence for the image as well
  • Make sure you credit your images correctly. Often the photographer will give you guidelines on how they want their pictures credited, the same applies to when you are using stock photos
  • You can purchase royalty free images from sites such as iStockphoto.com, to ensure you are not breaching copyright

For more information and to unravel the complexities of image rights, sites such as Stockphotorights.com can be useful. In addition, the PicScout ImageExchange application, a free, downloadable tool which helps content users find out where they may properly license images found on the internet, is also very helpful.

Social media has certainly caused some confusion around image rights, but copyright law is there to protect a photographer’s intellectual property and to prevent others taking the credit for their hard work. It’s great that people are now uploading their images via channels like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Pinterest, and we should celebrate such work by sharing/engaging with it, however it is vital to make sure the originator is credited.

The photography industry is now stepping up its right to salvage the situation and claim their rights, and it is important that small businesses and marketers have the right information on how to access content that is affordable, helping them avoid the pitfalls of image copyright.

image: copyright/shutterstock

Rebecca Swift

Rebecca Swift

Director of Creative Planning , iStockphoto

Rebecca joined the photography industry nearly 20 years ago, and was one of the founding members of the creative research team at Getty Images, introducing the visual research methodology to the industry.

Rebecca is now responsible for building image collections for content library iStockphoto. Day to day she works with photographer communities that range from the amateur hobbyists to highly successful professionals through events such as iStockalpse.  Tasks include setting creative briefs, training photographers in legal issues and keywording and setting up practice photo shoots.  She also runs global research projects looking at the future of visual communications and has published many trend reports.

Rebecca also works as a visual consultant for global corporations who are building visual brands.  She works with companies within a wide range of industries from the Charity sector to the Oil Industry and has presented findings all over the world. 

Rebecca lectures widely at conferences and seminars and has been a visiting lecturer at University of the Arts and UCLAN.  She has sat on the judging panel for most of the significant European photography, design and advertising awards.


She is currently researching a PhD into visual trends in UK advertising imagery over the last 30 years. 

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Posted on July 22nd 2013 at 2:24PM

Great post, Rebecca. You may want to add in a bit about Creative Commons. Many artists and photographers are open for use on social media via CC, it's just up to those "borrowing" that original work to credit them appropriately. What's more, CreativeCommons.org has a nifty search engine they've built in to make finding CC-friendly work that much easier. 

Posted on July 23rd 2013 at 8:26AM

A good read Rebecca around a good issue. And I agree with Jessica- working in digital comm, I come across this issue many times and normally use Creative Common Images to go with my posts.

Posted on August 7th 2013 at 4:15PM

After reading this article it got me thinking about a scenario that happened to my business this past Spring. Your insight has prompted me to take the proper action. Thanks for the great article!