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Understanding Pictures, Copyrights and Citations

For many people, the topic of pictures, copyrights, and citations isn’t a popular one. It can be downright boring. However, it is also very important and it is something that bloggers and article writers need to understand. There are good reasons for this and some of those should become apparent.

Every time you write something or take a picture of something, you instantly become the owner of the works (the copyright owner), unless the writing or pictures are done under contract. In other words, if someone pays you to write an article or to take pictures, you are under contract. The writing and pictures used on blogging and writing sites aren’t contractual, normally. They aren’t contractual on Virily, for instance.

If someone then uses your pictures or what you wrote without your express consent, they are in violation of copyright. The terms of use on blogging and writing sites usually have a clause in the User’s Agreement that gives them permission to display those works. You still own the copyright. You have the option of offering the work as public domain or with one restriction or another, too. If you don’t change the restrictions, the work is given with all rights reserved.

Copyright laws can vary from country to country, but most often they are quite strict. People who violate copyright can be fined, jailed, sued, or any combination of these. This is to protect the owner’s rights to the copy, hence the word copyright.

For bloggers and article writers, this means that you cannot use what someone else has written, even if you change some of it. You can’t use images that aren’t yours, either, unless they are expressly public domain. If you do either, you are in violation of copyright and are subject to being fined, jailed, sued, and so forth.

There is a little leeway. If you quote a source, you are permitted to use the exact words in that source, provided that no more than 20% of an article or blog is from the source and provided that you cite the original source and say where the information came from.

The exceptions for pictures are a bit easier. An image can be Creative Commons Share-Alike, for instance. If it is, the photographer’s name, type of restriction (creative commons share-alike 3.0, as an example), and the URL of the site with the picture needs to be included with the image. This can be done in a number of ways and how it is done is less important than the fact that it is done. Again, failure to do so is a copyright violation.

Personally, I use a watermark on the image itself. To see what I mean, please look at the image below:

At the bottom of the image, the author’s name is given, the type of restriction (CC SA 2.0, which means Creative Commons Share-Alike 2.0) is given, and the URL of the location of the image is included. Some people prefer putting this information just below the image and others put it at the end of the blog post or article.

Some sites specialize in public domain pictures, meaning that the pictures can be used by anyone, for any purpose. This is true of the images on Pixabay.com (except for the sponsored images that bear the watermark of Shutterstock). In this case, it is permissible to simply indicate that the image came from Pixabay or whatever.

Here is the danger, though. It is not permissible to use pictures from Google Images and just say that they came from Google Images. Many or most of the images found on Google Images are copyrighted with all rights reserved, meaning that if you use them for any purpose, you are violating copyright unless you have a letter from the photographer giving you permission to use the picture. When Google indexes a page, it also indexes all the pictures on the page. Thus, they display during a search in Google Images even if they are strictly copyrighted. In order to use an image found in Google Images, you are required to go to the original page with the image and to cite that source, along with the author’s name, and the level of restriction. If the original page doesn’t include the level of restriction, assume that the image is copyrighted.

We aren’t talking about minor issues if you are caught violating copyright. A college student in 2016 was fined $10,000, was given 3 years probation, was ordered to remove the copyrighted work, and could still have been sued, all for using a single copyrighted image without permission. Granted, this was in the US, but most countries have strict copyright laws.

The bottom line is; don’t use copyrighted material unless you own the copyright or know that the material is free to use. If you use images from Google Images, you are potentially making a huge mistake. It is extremely important to understand that you are responsible for proper citation and for knowing if there is a restriction on the material. This is an instance when saying, “I didn’t know” isn’t a valid excuse.

All of this said, there is a way to use images from Google Images without violating copyright, but those steps aren’t included here simply because it would tend to murky the waters of a topic that is actually quite clear-cut. There are plenty of sites that have public domain images, which are listed as either Creative Commons 0 or CC0.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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12 Comments

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  1. You have missed the legal ‘Fair Use’.

    Not to get into ‘legalese’ if you were writing about the moon for example and used an image of the moon the Fair Use Doctrine is to allow for limited and reasonable uses as long as the use does not interfere with owners’ rights or impede their right to do with the work as they wish.

    • It wouldn’t be usable even then if the photographer used the ‘all rights reserved’ clause. In such a case, the writer would need to get written permission to use the image. There are several lawsuits each year where people try to claim fair use and the copyright holder sues and wins in court. The rider is that the image needs to be distinctive for it to not be fair use. A picture of a full moon in a cloudless sky with nothing but the moon and the sky visible wouldn’t be distinctive and many people could take exactly the same picture.

  2. I get all my images from Creative Commons, so I assume that they are OK.

    I have recently had an issue with another site that lifted an old article of mine – it started life on Helium! – and dropped it into their own site. They claim “fair use” – on the grounds that the article is educational and therefore free to use as they see fit. I have disputed this!

    • Creative Commons is an American Non-Profit organization that doesn’t have any images to share. As they put it, “Creative Commons licenses do not replace copyright, but are based upon it.” Therefore, it is not at all safe to assume that because an image carries a creative commons label that it is okay to use. Some CC images are expressly not for use on any site where the user profits from the use.

      As for your Helium article, you are entirely right. They cannot use the article without your consent. That means that you can legally demand that they remove it or reimburse you for its use…or both. I’ve had that happen to me a number of times. In a couple cases, I wrote and explained that it was in violation of US Copyright laws and nicely requested that they either take it down or pay me. I included an invoice along these lines: Posting fee $5 + $15 per month that the article is up. One of the places immediately took it down. The other took it down and paid me $35 for the time it was on the site. (I wasn’t aware that it had been on the site for 2 months.)

      In another couple of cases, I simply sent them a take-down order. They can’t fight it legally and it doesn’t take much checking for them to know that they can’t. Using it for “educational purposes” isn’t grounds for legal theft of intellectual property, which is basically what their use is.

      • I have asked for a take-down, but the site wants proof that the article is mine! This is not easy given that Helium and all its contents have long gone. I am hoping that a copy of my original text, which includes a statement that it was first published on Helium on a specific date will be sufficient. This statement was added when I republished the article on another site – Suite 101 – which is also now defunct!

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