10 worst mistakes bloggers make when using photos

Attorney and copyright expert Lesley Ellen HarrisThis week’s guest blog post was written by Lesley Ellen Harris, a lawyer, educator and author who has written four books on licensing and copyright issues. Read more about copyright basics at her website at CopyrightLaws.com. Follow her on Twitter at @CopyrightLaws.

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By Lesley Ellen Harris

Is this you?

 I found the perfect image in Google images, and inserted the image into my post.

Many assume if an image is online or in another blog that we may freely use it. In fact, the opposite is true. So if you locate that perfect image, assume it is protected by copyright. 

Then read the “boring legal stuff” or terms of use or copyright information to see if the photographer allows you to use the photo for certain purposes without obtaining permission from him. If you do not see such permission clearly indicated, then you need to obtain permission before using the photo.


What if the photo has a Creative Commons or CC license? Can I use the photo without obtaining permission? 

Well, that depends on which of the six CC licenses applies. On one end of the spectrum, the Attribution CC BY license allows you to distribute, remix, tweak and adapt, even commercially, as long as you give credit to the original creation. 

On the other end of the spectrum is the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND restrictive license only allowing you to use the photo as is for noncommercial purposes, with credit to the photographer. Read all about the CC licenses, then determine the permitted uses each time you see a CC license on a photograph.

For sure, I can use an image found in a U.S. government site because I’ve heard that there is no copyright in U.S. government works. 

It’s true that works created by employees of the U.S. government do not have copyright protection. However, the U.S. government may be assigned copyright by a photographer or cartographer or consultant. So unless you know for sure that the photo was created by a government employee, you may need to inquire about copyright permission before inserting the photo into your post.


If the image is already in a blog post, then there is no problem with me reposting that image. 

Again, you need to check out the circumstances. Start with the premise that the photo is protected by copyright and only use it without obtaining permission if it is clear by the photographer or a visible written license that you can use that photo without clearing rights.


OK, then, I bought the photo through a stock agency.  Now I can do anything I want with that photo? 

Not so fast. Stock agencies have licenses. You do not actually buy as in “transfer of ownership” photographs from stock agencies. In fact, you license the photos subject to terms and conditions in that license. Do you actually have to read the license? In the ideal world, yes. But most people do not read them.  Many agencies provide summaries of their licenses in plain English. See iStock Photo licenses.


I am just going to take my own photo. Surely that is completely risk free in a copyright sense. 

As long as you did not take the photograph as part of your work duties.  If you are employed, your employer owns copyright in photographs you took as part of your work duties.

If the rules for using photos in a blog sound complicated, you are not alone.  However, do not get overwhelmed. Follow the simple guidelines below to avoid mistakes in legally posting photos.


10 Guidelines to Follow

  1. Assume all online content is protected by copyright.
  2. Linking to a photo is less risky, in terms of copyright laws, than copying and pasting that image onto your site.
  3.  Take your own photos when possible. Unless you are employed and required to take photos as part of your work duties, you own the copyright in your own photos. Note that you should obtain a model release from any persons appearing in your photographs. This is separate from a copyright issue. Generally, obtain a model release where a person or body part, such as an identifying tattoo, is recognizable.
  4. A Creative Commons license is just that: a license. Read the terms and conditions and see what is allowed or not.
  5. Stock photo agencies provide you with a license to use its photos. That license is subject to specified terms and conditions (to which supposedly you have agreed.) IStockphoto has standard and extended licenses. Read the summaries of the licenses provided by stock agencies.
  6. Just because you obtained permission once does not give you unlimited use of that image.  Check your permission and see if it was one-time or multiple use, over what period of time, and for what purposes.
  7. Only manipulate or morph photos with the photographer’s permission.
  8. Only make a colored photo black and white with the photographer’s permission.
  9. When you seek permission from photographers, always ask first if they actually own the copyright in the photograph. Photographers may have assigned their rights to someone else, or the photographs may have been created at work as part of their work duties. In these latter cases, the photographers do not have the right to provide you with permission to the use the photograph.
  10. A reproduction is a reproduction is a reproduction.  Whether you include a photograph in a magazine article, blog post or community poster, you are reproducing that photograph and under copyright law, you need permission to use that photo.

 Please consider this post as information only. Seek proper legal advice if you need it.

Update from The Publicity Hound on Oct. 17, 2012: I found this interesting article on a photographer who is suing Apple for an image it didn’t license. 

About Joan Stewart

Publicity expert Joan Stewart, a PR mentor aka The Publicity Hound, works with small business owners who need free publicity, and with PR pros who tell their clients' stories to the world. She shows you how to establish your credibility, enhance your reputation, position yourself as an expert, and sell more products and services. To receive her free DIY publicity tips twice a week, subscribe here. See all the ways you can work with Joan. Or contact her and ask a burning question about PR, self-promotion or social media.


  1. Useful post. The corollary is that people who do own the copyright in photographs can use an open licence, to allow others to reuse them, freely.

    I wrote a blog post to help people who want to do so: “Open-licensing your images. What it means and how to do it“.

  2. Good morning, Joan.

    I’ve been absolutely paranoid about the images I use on my blog – this guide is excellent. Thank you.

    I’ll be sharing with all my clients – newbie bloggers.

    Kind regards,

    • I’m so glad that Lesley was able to help. Her guest post is chock full of information I wasn’t aware of. Just one more benefit of allowing guests posts. It makes the blogger smarter!

  3. Excellent summary of the issues thanks Lesley.

    I also found Andy’s blog post about Creative Commons and open licencing very valuable. We have CC on our website because almost all the material is original and spreading it wide is part of our educational strategy.


  4. John Rinks says:

    Leave it to the attorney to stick a spear into the heart of creativity. If an artist spends all his time searching out every minute source in a photo freely posted on the internet then he will have no time to create. I refer the readers of this post to the belief of Benjamin Franklin who freely gave his inventions for the better of humanity:


    It is no wonder that the Chinese are laughing at the US with all its restrictions and attorneys. All the time and expense that goes with the legal maneuvering around copyrights is incredibly wasteful, not to mention the stifling affect on cool new designs we could be creating.

    • The attorney who wrote this, John, didn’t make the laws. She’s simply the messenger. Violating copyright is a serious violation, and we’re simply trying to keep bloggers (and anyone else) out of legal trouble. Defending a lawsuit (even a frivolous one) can be very costly.


  1. [...] (@copyrightlaws), writing on Joan Stewart’s (@PublicityHound) The Publicity Hound Blog: the 10 worst mistakes bloggers make when using photos. I won’t go through the whole list here, but most of them center around copyright violations. [...]

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