How do I know if a photo is copyrighted?

Woman looking at image on tablet. How do I know if a photo is copyrighted?
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Using photos copied from the internet can be risky, and you could put yourself in danger of breaching copyright. Since the advent of the internet, it is so simple to right click and save an image, but to keep yourself safe you should never use that photo unless you know the regulations surrounding it! That’s what we’re here for – we’re going to let you know when an image is copyrighted, when it isn’t, and most importantly, when you can use it on your website.

Can you use any image from the web?

Quick answer – no! According to UK Law, when an image is created, it is copyright protected as the intellectual property of the creator. This is a process that happens automatically, so if you upload a picture on your website that you took, other people do not have the right to use it unless you give them permission. Copyright in the UK lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years from their death, but if the copyright has expired then you are free to use it.  

There are exceptions to copyright, which means you can use any image as long as it is used within limited situations. This includes non-commercial research, private study, and teaching. If you are using your website to sell a service, then you will be using photos for commercial use and copyright will apply. 

How can you tell if you can use a photo?

This is the tricky bit – if copyright is automatically applied without having to apply for it, there are no records on what is free to use. 

However, if a photo has a watermark (often the name of the company/creator written on the image), if it has the ⓒ symbol, or a caption that indicates ownership or sourcing, then it’s generally safe to assume this image is protected under copyright and you can’t use it. 

You might have found a picture that is free to use under the Creative Commons Licensing, but you’ll need to look at the wording in detail. Often these types of licenses are limited to non-commercial use. 

One good way to see if a photo is copyrighted is by reverse searching for the image. Right click on the image and select “copy image address”. Then paste this into Google Images or a site dedicated to reverse image search, like TinEye. This will show you where the image is used, and where it has come from. You can also install plugins for Firefox and Chrome to easily reverse search images. If it comes from a paid stock photo website like Adobe, then leave it be! 

A common question is whether you can use photos from social media, but in the UK, these pictures are still considered the intellectual property of the creator. Social media platforms do have terms in their contracts that mean they can reuse your content, but this doesn’t override existing copyright laws. Essentially, this means that the social media provider can re-use your material (for example, when someone shares your photo on their feed within the app) but that doesn’t mean that anybody can download your photo and pass it off as your own. 

How can you find copyright-free images?

If we’ve scared you, we didn’t mean to! It might seem like all photos are copyrighted, but there are loads of stock photos that are available to use. You can choose to pay for a stock photo provider, like Shutterstock or Adobe, but there are also loads of free stock photo websites that offer high quality photos – for nothing! Here is a list of some of our favourites, and you can use these images worry-free.

What happens if I use a copyrighted image on the web?

If you unknowingly use a photo that is copyright-protected, then you might be contacted and asked to purchase a one-off licence for the use of that photo. Or, if you have used more than one photo from the same creator, they may try and come to a commercial arrangement, where you can freely use their photos for an ongoing fee. 

In the worst case scenario, however, the creator could take legal action and take you to court. This usually ends up being very expensive, as the user will have to pay the licence of the photo, court expenses, and often financial compensation for the copyright infringement, as well as removing all photos by that creator from their site. If it is deemed that you deliberately infringed copyright, then there are criminal penalties. 

The best way to stay safe is never to use a photo if you’re not sure where it came from! If you don’t have a budget, you can use free stock images, but if you’re still on the hunt for a website builder to do so, why not try Go Sitebuilder? They have free access to thousands of stock photos so you won’t have to worry about copyright, as well as easy-to-use galleries and photo editors. Try our 14-day trial and see for yourself!

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