With the prevalence of images available on the internet, social media, and other digital sources, copyright infringement of photographs and other images has become a widespread risk. When creating content and using images, it is important to respect the copyright owner’s rights. The copyright generally is owned by the photographer or creator of the image. Just because an image is on a Google image search, Instagram, or is otherwise easy to copy or snip and paste, that does not mean it is freely available for copying.
Enforcers of copyrights are more and more likely to discover and hold infringers accountable. A cottage industry of software-enabled services such as Pixsy provides subscription services to copyright owners. The software then crawls the internet to look for instances of the owner’s copyrighted image. The software even creates and sends demand letters seeking automated compensation for copyright violation. This innovation is useful to protect the copyrights of legitimate image owners, but it also supports widespread assertions that seek arbitrary fees and do not consider fair use. Assertions from these entities should be taken seriously, and it is best to avoid them through good practices and training. If you ever receive an assertion of copyright infringement, even if it appears to be spam, it is best to (a) have your IT resource confirm it is not phishing and (b) forward to your legal contact or OGC.
The most important thing to remember is that copying images without permission can be costly and illegal. The safest thing is to use images with explicit permission from the copyright owner to do so.
There are many resources that offer free images. Microsoft, for example, can filter photo insertions to include only those available via Creative Commons, a type of copyright license that encourages sharing. Proper attribution may still be necessary even for Creative Commons licenses. Other web sites offer shareable photos, including FreeImages, Pixabay, Unsplash, and iStock Photo.
Using photos from a site that purports to offer royalty-free photos is better than simply copying or snipping photos at will, but it is not 100% safe. If a copyrighted photo wrongly makes it onto a “free image” site, the copyright owner might still make a claim. In such a situation, removing the photo should be a satisfactory remedy if there was good-faith belief the photo was not violating a copyright.
As with any other piece of copyrighted material, fair use may allow reasonable use of a photo, especially for educational use. Use of photos should be scrutinized most carefully for use that resembles commercial activity such as fundraising, marketing, or populating official university web sites.
One safe way to utilize photos is via a license or purchase from Getty Images or a similar reputable image aggregator. Another safe method is to get explicit written permission from the photographer. If a photo is posted on social media, an affirmative response to a message request for permission to the owner will generally suffice (that is, if the poster has ownership of the image). It is also of course safe to use your own photos, drawings, or images that you create—you’re the copyright owner of those.
A Special Note on Photos of People (especially students)
To use a photo (or video) of a person, two types of permissions are needed. One is copyright, which is owned by the photographer. The other is the right to publicity and privacy, which is owned by the person in the image. A close-up photo of an identifiable individual should only be used with a talent release form such as this example from UT Austin. There are exceptions for public figures and celebrities where there is less risk of using photos. Use of photos of students, however, could involve more risk due to FERPA student privacy issues.
Key guidance about using photos:
This section of the Copyright Crash Course was authored by Marc Vockell, Office of General Counsel for UT System.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic License.