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The cost of free images

20th January 2016

3-minutes read

We’ve all done it from time to time... you’re in the middle of writing something for work and you realise that a good photo would finish things off nicely. But you don’t have one to hand...

No matter, I'll just nip on to Google Images and find one there. After all, there are millions of photos on Google Images – and on the Internet in general – so finding one won't be a problem. And they must be free, right? They're just there, on the Internet, waiting for me to right-click and save to my computer.

The reality

It's a familiar situation. And while it's true that saving an image from the Internet isn't difficult, it's also illegal! You simply don't have permission to do this.

Someone owns the copyright on that image you've used and you must have their permission to use it.

The unwelcome truth

A new client recently told us about an incident with their previous website: they'd received a letter from Getty Images explaining that an image owned by Getty was being used on the client's site. Furthermore, because the client hadn't paid Getty for use of the image, they'd infringed copyright. In short, the client now owed Getty Images £1,100 because they had used the image without permission. And there were legal and admin expenses to pay too!

Inevitably, our client was up in arms, protesting their innocence and ignorance of having done anything wrong.

But the truth was that the client had used the image. They'd originally found it on Google Images and they didn't have the permission of the copyright owner.

To claim that you didn't realise that you were doing something wrong is not a defence and Getty Images, or anyone else intent on enforcing their legal rights, won't let you off the hook simply because "I didn't know it was a problem!".

What should you do?

While you can freely access an image on the Internet, this does not make it free. Someone, somewhere owns it. If that image is of a celebrity languishing in an Australian jungle, a well known landmark or even just a high street product, the owner of the image will take the matter seriously.

Royalty-free images

Your first port of call is a royalty-free image library. iStock and are two examples and there are many others.

For NHS organisations, there's also an NHS image library which offers a range of royalty-free photos.

Your photography

Sometimes, image libraries simply don't stock the photo you need. Often, their images are too clinical (or American!) and you know that it simply "doesn't look right".

So why not take your own photo? You would automatically own the copyright, so there'll be no legal issues. Or you could commission a professional photographer - but you should establish how the photographer will let you use the images, as the copyright (by default) rests with them.

You've been warned!

When you're simply looking for a photo to complement your article, it's tempting to nip on the Internet, find a "free" image and be done with it. But you need to know that you are probably – almost certainly – infringing copyright law and the repercussions can be anything but free.

Jeremy Flight

Jeremy Flight

Technical Director

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