The Life Authorial: Using photos on your blog

The Life Authorial is a series of posts sharing firsthand tips learned on the journey toward publication.

So, that girl with the computer? The one stuck in the olden days with the confused look on her face? That’s me, trying to figure out ‘the internet’.

Or to put it more specifically, trying to figure out ‘the blogging’.

As far as surfing, browsing, researching, and other basics go, I’m as web savvy as the next person. In fact, I actually capital-letters LOVE research. But to create something and put it online? That’s a whole ‘nother ball game. One that involves really hard things like…hacker-level HTML coding (or, y’know, cut and paste)…figuring out what blog ‘tags’ do (still not totally sure)…and most importantly, not ripping off other people’s work.

So what’s a poor, hair-bow-adorned, Victorian lass to do?

1. Never, ever assume that because “everyone else does it”, improper photo attribution is ok.

As blogger Roni Loren discovered, you CAN get sued for using photos you don’t own on your blog, even when you have the best of intentions. In this blog post, she recounts her experience of being sued after using a photo from Google Images with a disclaimerBecause she had seen many other blogs – some of them really ‘big’ blogs – using improperly attributed images this way, she assumed it was ok. Unfortunately for Loren, it wasn’t, and she ended up having to pay “money she didn’t have for a photo she didn’t need”.

Roni Loren’s blog post about her experience is not only helpful, but honest and really brave, and I highly recommend it.

2. Use images that you own, or which are licensed through Creative Commons.

The most obvious, simplest way to avoid copyright infringement and improper use of someone else’s work is to use your own. If you are not photograpically inclined, however, you can use work that has been shared with the world under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons is a “global nonprofit organization that enables sharing and reuse of creativity and knowledge through the provision of free legal tools“. What it is best known for is sharing copyright agreements with the public free of charge. These licenses can then be applied to artists’ work (by the artists holding copyright themselves – you can’t unilaterally license someone else’s work) to allow other people to use the work according to specific, defined circumstances.

One of the most well-known “hubs” for works available through Creative Commons licenses is photo-sharing site Flickr. The site offers artists different “levels” of licensing options for their work, and it groups images into easily navigated categories by license type.

3. Take the time to understand your rights and obligations.

Using Flickr as an example, let’s take a look at the different types of Creative Commons licenses out there:

Attribution license – this means that you may copy, distribute, and display an image provided under this license, so long as you give the author credit. You may also create derivative works from the originals, meaning you create something new using elements of the image. In this instance, you must still give the original author credit for use of their work.

Attribution-NoDerivs license – this means that you may copy, distribute, and display an image with proper credit, but you may not alter it or use it to create something new.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license – see above, with the added caveat that your use must be non-commercial.

ShareAlike license – if you create a derivative work from the original, you must distribute your work under the same license as the original.

You should also remember that while summaries and articles of your rights and obligations (like this one) might be helpful, they are not legal advice and are not a substitute for reading licenses yourself to determine what you can and cannot legally do with an image.

4. Respect the formal requirements of proper attribution (giving credit).

When using an image licensed under Creative Commons, it is not sufficient just to say it is subject to a CC license. To comply with the license, you need to provide more detailed information, including:

  • the title of the image;
  • the author’s name (a best practice is to link to the author’s profile page);
  • a link to the original source (for example, the Flickr site where the image can be found); and
  • a link to the license.

Creative Commons provides a handy, detailed guide (with examples!) on best practices for attribution here. And in case all of this seems overwhelming and stressful, try to keep in mind that CC stresses that there’s no need to make things overly complicated. As they say in their guide to best practices, “there is no one right way; just make sure your attribution is reasonable and suited to the medium you’re working with”.

5. Feel free to use work that is in the public domain or is being used for the purposes of “fair dealing” or “fair use”.

While you should always be sure to confirm your right to use an image before you post it on your blog, there are some circumstances in which no license is required. Some works exist in the public domain, meaning that they are not subject to copyright and can be used freely. Some artists choose to offer their work for free, and some older images (think decades, not years) have been in existence long enough that their copyright has expired. According to Wikipedia, the image of the Mona Lisa, for example, has been reproduced on everything from postcards and t-shirts to seaweed and computer chips.

Other images may be used without permission from their creator if they are being shared for purposes of “fair dealing” or “fair use” such as study, criticism, review, or news reporting. One frequent example of this is book bloggers’ use of unattributed cover images of books they are reviewing. In her FAQ, The Librarian Who Doesn’t Say Shhh! does a great job of explaining that this is ok because the images she uses fall under “useful article” criteria, and are copies of an inferior quality to the originals.

As always, you should be sure to confirm the copyright status of an image before using it. What constitutes “fair use” or “fair dealing” varies from country to country, and copyright laws may provide for differing lengths of copyright terms.

*Because I’m a lawyer in real life, I need to be extra careful not to lead anyone to believe I’m giving out free legal advice. The above discussion is a summary of information found online, and does not speak to specifics of circumstance or jurisdiction. This post should not, in any way, shape, or form be taken as legal advice.

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