Image Rights for Dummies

Who Owns What on the Internet?

Who knows anything about Image Rights these days? Do you think that you can save and use any image you find on the web? Many people feel that way, but the truth is far different.

MYTH:  I found it on the Google, so I can use it how I like.

FACT:  Owners of creative content reserve full rights to that content. In addition, those image rights include how and where it gets used, regardless of where it appears online.

Image Rights for Dummies

Photo © Designer491 – Dreamstime.com

We all see so many pictures floating around on social media apps. You find images through numerous web sites, or shared through links, likes, pins and tweets. In fact, it’s really difficult, understanding the archaic ins and outs of copyright laws that govern image rights.

The bottom line is that when using copyrighted materials almost anywhere, you must obtain written consent from the copyright owner. There are very few exceptions. It may surprise you, but this includes on social media sites, too.

You can obtain that clearance via a specific and binding license. The copyright owner permits the use of their content, either directly or through an agency. They do so usually in exchange for a license fee, and with certain restrictions applied.  You can license creative content in several ways. Of course, you should never use photos without securing the image rights from the creator.

Image Rights for Dummies

Photo © Oleg Dudko – Dreamstime.com

Editorial vs. Commercial

Also remember that all images, if people, private property or copyrighted materials are in the image, have other restrictions.  In such a case, then you must obtain a model or property release from the person depicted, the property owner or the copyright holder of the subject matter. (Live celebrities usually don’t count.) This grants the consumer the image rights for that likeness in commercial applications. That is independent of the license granted by the copyright owner of the image. An image user must do so in addition to and regardless of image rights you’ve already secured.

Conversely, images that contain any person, place or subject, and does not include such a release, are only used when newsworthy or for editorial purposes. That means media for truthful articles published in magazines, newspapers, or other editorial context.

Image Licensing for DummiesPhoto © Artur Szczybylo – Dreamstime.com

Rights Managed (RM)

For starters,  you license Rights Managed Content for one-time use. Your use is usually restricted by geography, end use type or time frame. After the time agreed upon, the buyer may not use again without purchasing the image another time.  We sometimes call this a “Pay as you Use” scenario.

Royalty Free  (RF)

Next, you can publish content multiple times without paying royalties for each use with Royalty-free images.  In this case, owners grant License in perpetuity worldwide, usually without further restrictions. Occasionally, certain volume restrictions may apply.

Sell the Rights (SR)

Sometime referred to as SR or SR-EL, a Sell the Rights license transfers ownership of the media exclusively to a new owner.  The original content creator has no further claim to it.  The Buyer becomes the new copyright holder, and may use the media without restriction. They can also resell it.

Image Rights for DummiesPhoto © Mtkang – Dreamstime.com

Public Domain

Images in the Public Domain are used freely without attribution to or licensing by the original creator. 

Moon Man

No need for credits.

Copy Rights and Wrongs

Let’s have the US Copyright Office explain:

A work … is in the public domain if it is no longer under copyright protection, or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner. 

Content can also enter the public domain if the copyright holder explicitly places it there. Generally, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

You may use Public Domain images in derivative works. That means you may manipulate and reuse them as they see fit, without restrictions.  Anyone can use a Public Domain image, but no one can own it. However, you CAN take a Public Domain image, create an original work incorporating it, and possibly copyright the new work.

There are many databases available where you can search and find images in the Public Domain. Now, there is a lure of using an image completely free of charge. However, the adage “you get what you pay for” is somewhat appropriate here.

Royalty free Limited License (RF-LL)

And finally, an agency may offer, at their discretion, a number of royalty free images free of charge.  The same rules of usage as royalty free images will apply. The only difference is that there’s no cost to the consumer.  In many instances, the appropriate model or property release will be made available. There’s even the added benefit of quality control restrictions applied by the agency.  With an explicit license granted for use and higher quality, this could be a better option than Public Domain images.

Cleared Up

I hope that licensing and image rights are now crystal clear. But, how do you know which restrictions apply for the image you want to use?

The best advice I can give is to work through an agency from the outset.  Working with a reliable agency ensures the content you post will offer the appropriate license.  They can also help with clarifying the many intricacies involved with image copyright restrictions. This way, you’ll ensure you don’t violate image rights for any creators. Also, your work will have greater authority by crediting the proper folks.