A Few Words About Photo Copyrights

The topic of photo copyrights came up during several of my workshops at last weekend's Colorado Gold Conference (one of the best Writers' Conferences anywhere - and if you've never attended one, PLEASE join us next September, when the conference turns 35!). Authors often have a limited understanding of how copyright law applies to photographs - and sometimes don't realize that using photos pulled from the Internet without a license is copyright infringement unless the photograph is in the public domain (or the owner has released it for use by others).

In light of that, I thought I'd take a little time today to review the law of copyright as it applies to photographs (and their use online), and offer tips for protecting yourself and your work from claims that you've infringed a photo copyright.

Copyright attaches to photographs at the time of creation, and belongs to the photographer who shot the image (or, in some cases, the client who hired the photographer to create works for hire). You cannot use someone else's image without a license (or permission), unless the image is released for your intended use and/or has entered the public domain--and you must be able to prove that status.

In other words: you cannot simply pull someone else's photographs from the Internet and use them, even on a blog that earns no money. 

Also, you cannot assume a photograph is released for use or in the public domain because it appears on Pinterest or on someone else's blog or website. (Even sites that claim to offer copyright-released or licensed photos for free can carry some degree of risk, because if a troll uploads a copyrighted image without the author's permission, people who subsequently use that image may be subject to infringement claims. It's rare, but I've seen it happen, with expensive consequences.)

So what's an author to do?

Some authors subscribe to reliable paid photography services that give access to image libraries. For a fee (and, in some cases, for free on a more limited basis) authors can use the images in these libraries for book covers, blogs, and other creative endeavors. Some services work on a "pay as you go" basis, licensing individual images, while others allow authors to pay a monthly (or annual) fee for unlimited image use. Only subscribe to reputable sites, and when using free photo sites, make sure the operators actually check the source of the images they offer.

Some authors stick with images that have entered the public domain, either due to copyright expiration or a confirmed copyright release by the photographer or copyright owner. Once an image has entered the public domain, it's free to use and it isn't copyright infringement to use it for blogs, book covers, and other creative works. The U.S. Library of Congress has an extensive collection of images, many of which are in the public domain and thus completely free to download and use. (Here's a link to their Japanese collection - much of which is in the public domain.) 

When pulling images from any website, BEWARE. Some free image sites are legitimate, but others may contain stolen or copyright-infringing images uploaded accidentally (or, in rare cases, on purpose by devious individuals wanting to cause trouble). When in doubt, don't use the image. You will be legally liable for copyright infringement even if the infringement was accidental.


The best solution of all is to create the images yourself. Most people have either a camera or (more commonly) a mobile device that includes a camera. When traveling, or even out and about near home, take photographs of everything from rocks to flowers to automobiles (be sure to blur any license plates you capture - or, better still, take photos where the license plate doesn't show).


I refer to this habit of taking photos of various objects and places as "shooting B roll" - and it's a habit every author and blogger should adopt.

In film and television, camera crews shoot a combination of "A roll" - the scenes involving the actors, hosts, or primary subjects of the film - and "B roll" - still and moving shots of background, interesting objects, and other items used in post-production to enhance the film, as well as for bumpers and introductory scenes.

By shooting your own B roll when you're out and about, you're establishing a photo library of images you own, which you can use for any and every purpose, from cover art to blogging and beyond.



Need a mug for a post on your favorite morning beverage?







Don't limit your photographs to family functions, historical sites and lovely landscapes--though they're certainly useful too. 



Start photographing that B-roll now. It won't take long to build a photo library all your own.



Like this bowl, you'll be glad you did.

Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

10 thoughts on “A Few Words About Photo Copyrights

  1. Another great post, Susan! Thanks for keeping us honest! I’ve been using a theoretically usable site, but we had this conversation, didn’t we? :-] Changing my MO and going to go back in an start deleting all those WikiCommon photos…just don’t have the time to FURTHER track them all down….

  2. A question: what if I take a photo of books (or anything else) I own? Can I use those images? And how should I attribute them? Like “The Werewolf of Ponkert, by H. Warner Minn, © 1976 (My book photo, © Sept 15, 2016)”; would this be usable? And if I do that, is my picture of said copyrighted?

  3. Great points. For what it’s worth, there is a fairly famous romance cover artist whose covers are *constantly* being sold without permission at Fiverr.com (a few times a week, it seems). Also, just a designer note: If you plan to use your “B-roll” for print purposes, you need high resolution photos that are at least 300 dpi. Just as most websites use pictures that are 72 dpi, so are unusable for print work, many phones and digital cameras do not shoot resolution this high, or if they do, it has to be specified in the settings. Don’t take the perfect book cover photo, then find out later that you can only use it for your e-book.

  4. Good reminder, SS. I have always been extremely cautious when it comes to including images in blog posts, especially my RMFW posts, as I do’t want RMFW to get sued for my negligence. People need to keep these points in mind.

  5. Great information. BTW, did you know that American citizens can use any photos that are on .gov pages freely? Just found that out myself. Since I write military romance, I can use any photos on the official Air Force page. YAY.

  6. Susan, I am so happy you pointed this out. I think as authors we know this about images we use for covers, but we don’t stop to think about our blogs. I know I didn’t. So if you saw that guilty look on my face during our panel, that is why. Haha! When I got home Sunday I went over my blog and double checked the few (it was surprisingly few thank goodness) images I had used on my blog from external sources. I deleted a few of them (about five that I’ll need to replace with my own images at some point), but was pleased that the bulk of the photos were actually my own and the ones left were in the public domain. I am going to start my own B Roll!

  7. Great post, and people need to be aware of copyright for images they use on the web. Another option is to use royalty-free or open source images. I go to flick creative commons for some of my website images. The images themselves will say what type of license they support, whether or not they can be used on commercial sites or what type of attribution is required, for example.

  8. As always good info, Susan. I have also seen sites that have images that can be used for free as long as “they aren’t for commercial use.” Do you see issues with using those for blogs, etc. as long as what you’re using them on isn’t going to be sold? Would that apply to an author’s website? Thanks!

  9. Another good point to remember is to have a photography contract that specifies your rights to use a photo, particularly author shots and other promo pictures.

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