September 5, 2014

Stop! Thief! Why You Can’t Take Images From Google

If you take an image from the internet without permission, you are stealing it. Period.

You need an image for something – an email newsletter, a project for school, a brochure or other marketing collateral. There are a lot of things to consider when obtaining photographs and graphic images, in particular whether you’re actually allowed to use them. Despite the belief of some, we don’t have free reign over all the items Google Image Search populates for us when we search “cute husky puppies” (or anything for that matter).

In actuality, when you take something from Google Image Search and use it without checking who it belongs to and asking for permission, you’re breaching copyright. You’re stealing.

Let that sink in for a second, because I don’t know that many of us actually truly grasp that concept.

If you take an image from the internet without permission, you are stealing it.

Good, now that we’ve understood this concept, let’s get down to why you’re here – you need an image, and want to know where you get it so you don’t have the owner coming after you and your first born. The question of the day is, very simply, what are you using your image for? The first major distinction is whether you’re using it commercially or for your own personal use.

If you take an image from the internet without permission, you are stealing it.

Generally when using graphics and photos for personal use, you’re a student and you’re putting them in a presentation of some kind. Depending on your institution’s plagiarism guidelines, you’ll have to cite your sources. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the citation style of your particular program (APA or MLA) and cite accordingly.

If you’re not a student and you want to use copyrighted images, determine what you’re using it for.

Exhibit A: My mother (bless her heart). For almost every one of her Facebook friend’s birthdays, she will go into Google Image Search and pluck out a picture of a fancy cake that she thinks suits the personality of that friend. She then right clicks, Save As, and will post that picture to their wall. No harm, right?

Exhibit B: A client. This client had a project which required images, of which they said they would provide. They provided some pictures, sure, but they took them straight off Google Image Search. Found the photo they liked, right clicked, Save As, and sent us the image. No harm, right?

Exhibit C: Another client. This client produces a monthly newsletter that they distribute to their email contact list to keep their clients up-to-date on what is going on in the marketplace. They also found a photo they liked (several, actually), right clicked, Save As, and sent us the picture. No harm, right?

All of these exhibits are classic examples of online image thievery. How do we fix this problem? In the case of my mother, she should link to the original image URL in her post. In the case of the clients, it’s a bit more complicated.

When you’re using photos and graphics for marketing collateral, citing your sources just isn’t good enough. Most of the time, you’ll need to purchase a license to use the photograph or graphics. There are great photo sharing websites like Flickr that provide options for you to access great images under specific creative commons licensing terms for commercial use (some even for free). Other websites like iStock or Shutterstock allow you to purchase stock photos, illustrations, and more for commercial use on a subscription or pay-per-item basis.

To save money, you’re probably thinking “Hey, I have a camera. I can take my own pictures!” You may have a camera, and you may take pictures with that camera, and you may even want to utilize those pictures you took with that camera of yours for your marketing collateral…but (there’s always a “but”) ask yourself a few questions first:

  • Are you using your own SD card? It doesn’t matter who owns the camera you’re using, but rather who owns the storage. If you own the card, you own the photo.

  • Were you commissioned to take these photographs? If yes, you do not own the rights to them – the person paying you to take them owns them. This is also dependent on the terms of your agreement, so make sure you look into that.

  • Did you take a picture of a person without their permission? The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) will apply if you’re using that picture for commercial use, unless you’re using the photograph in a journalistic, artistic, or literary purpose only. When in doubt, ask.

If you’re still confused, check out this great graphic we made. Feel free to share it to the world and post it to your social media. (That’s us giving you permission.)

Want to get down to the really dirty details? The CIPPIC (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic) has a great FAQ section on the topic of copyright and privacy in photography in Canada. If you really want to get into the legal mumbo-jumbo, check out Canada’s Copyright Act.

Meagan was a member of the Reaction team until mid 2015.  You can still find her writing her way to a better future @meaganwade.