December 11


Image Copyright and Authors: How To Avoid Legal Trouble

By Boni Wagner-Stafford

December 11, 2018

#authors, #bookcovers, #copyright, #coverdesign, #images, #indieauthors

Image copyright for authors. We authors are usually pretty sensitive and aware of copyright issues around the written word. But with so many images seeming to be freely available online, do you know how to ensure you use images in such a way as to avoid legal trouble? Or, at least, how to avoid unintentionally screwing another artist out of his or her hard-won royalties and credit for their work?

Images like graphics, illustrations, or photographs can really add to the quality of your book. And to the blogs and marketing materials you create in support of your book. Where do you get those images from?

  1. You can create your own.
  2. Or, commission an artist, designer, or photographer to create images for you.
  3. Much easier, though, is to use images that have already been created and are available online.

Most of us choose number three. However, using an image — legally — is not as simple as downloading it from the internet and inserting it into your book or your blog. Images, just like writing, are subject to copyright. Infringing on that copyright can get you into legal trouble. To prevent this, you need to understand the basics of image copyright for authors, including when you may use an image and under what conditions, and when you are not legally permitted to use the image in the manner you wish.

Copyrighted Images

As soon as someone creates an original image, that person automatically owns the copyright on that image. It doesn’t require filing any legal paperwork or adding the © copyright symbol. The creator may transfer the copyright to someone else, for example a publisher. This often happens when an artist is commissioned to create an image for a book and the contract stipulates that the publisher or author will have copyright on that image. If you want to use an image in your book or blog and you don’t own the copyright to that image, you need the copyright holder’s express permission. You’ll need to attribute the image to that person and you may have to pay a fee. You can contact the copyright holder directly or get a permissions researcher to do this on your behalf.

Image banks aka stock image sites such as Shutterstock often provide access to copyrighted images. Some images on image-sharing sites like Flickr also have copyright attached. These will be marked as “All rights reserved”.

One-Time Use

You’ll want to check the fine-print on the licensing for any image you wish to use, whether you’re getting it from a stock image site or hiring your own photographer. (There are advantages to using a stock site, including that the site will manage most of the legal issues that may crop up between you and the creator.) Whether you’re planning to use an image on the cover of your book, or on your website and its blog, has different implications in the licensing agreement. Always read the fine print.

If you notice that an image you’re about to purchase, or access in the case that it is free, has a license term that says “one-time use,” and you thought you were going to use the image on your book cover…. you’ll want to think again and look for a different image. If you want an image that will only be used on ONE poster that you are going to hang in your OWN office, that’s an example of one-time use. Putting the image on the cover of a book that you plan — hope — to sell thousands of copies of, is not one-time use.

What About Image Copyright Fair Use?

Fair use is a legal principle that basically means you can use a copyrighted image without permission, under certain conditions. Copyright laws differ country to country, and this concept is also sometimes called ‘fair dealing.’ In general, under fair use/fair dealing, you may be permitted to use the image for the greater good of the public. Fair use usually applies to using the image for the purposes of criticism, reporting, research, comment or education. It generally doesn’t apply to using images in a book for trade publishing. To be sure, assume that the image you want to use is copyrighted and approach the copyright holder or the publisher of the image for permission.

Creative Commons Licence

Creative Commons does not mean it’s a free-for-all and that you can use the image in whatever manner you see fit. Creative commons is a non-profit organization that grants licences to creators. With these licences, creators can communicate more easily which rights they reserve, so you know exactly what you can use their images for without having to contact them. They don’t replace copyright but make copyright easier to manage.

Images with Creative Commons licences are usually free to use but you need to acknowledge the creator. There are different types of Creative Commons licences. Some specify that the work is for non-commercial purposes only, so you cannot use them in a book you plan to sell. However, there are three types of licences that allow you to use the images for commercial purposes such as in a book:

  • Attribution: If an image has an Attribution licence, you can use it as is or modify it but you need to acknowledge the creator.
  • Attribution-ShareAlike: If you use an image with an Attribution-ShareAlike licence, you can make changes to that image. However, you need to credit the creator of the original image and licence the new image under similar terms.
  • Attribution-NoDerivs: To use an image with an Attribution-NoDerivs licence, you must use that image in its original form, without making any changes to it. You also need to give attribution to the creator of the image.

There are many websites where you can download images with Creative Commons licences. On Flickr, for instance, images with Creative Commons licences will be marked as “Some rights reserved”. Wikimedia Commons is another good source of Creative Commons images. If you find an image with a Creative Commons licence online, there will be a link to the licence deed. It will show you how to attribute the image. You normally need to include the title of the image, the name of the creator, the source and the type of Creative Commons licence.

Images in the Public Domain

When an image is in the public domain, it means that nobody holds exclusive copyright on it and it’s not trademarked. It belongs to the public and anybody can use it for any purpose. There are three main reasons why an image may be in the public domain:

  • It was created before copyright laws existed. The first copyright law, the Statute of Anne, came into being in the early 1700s. This means that images created before then, for example Renaissance paintings, are in the public domain.
  • Its copyright has expired. With a handful of exceptions, copyright isn’t infinite. Again, copyright laws differ from one country to another and what may be in the public domain in one country may still be subject to copyright in another. It expires after a certain period, such as 50 or 70 years after the death of the creator, after which time it enters the public domain. Paintings or photographs from the late 19th century are usually in the public domain.
  • The creator has waived copyright and expressly said that the work is in the public domain.

Great sources for public domain images are Wikimedia Commons, sites like Pixabay, museums and libraries and online archives. When you use a public domain image, you don’t have to give attribution. However, it’s nice to give credit where credit is due by acknowledging the creator and/or supplier.

Image Copyright and Authors

While the design of your book cover is a unique and copyrighted piece of intellectual property, it doesn’t mean the copyright on the underlying images cease to exist. That’s an important point to remember.

It takes just a little more time and effort to pay attention to what kind of licence is applied to the image or images you want to use. But it’s a lot less than the time and effort you’ll be faced with if you’ve used an image inappropriately, and the copyright owner decides to take legal action against you. Not to mention the reputation hit from being a creator who does not respect the work of other creators.

Your #bookcover may be a unique & copyrighted piece of intellectual property, it doesn't overwrite the #copyright on the underlying images in your design #imagecopyright #avoidlegaltrouble #iartg #asmrg #indieauthor

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What do you think?

  • Great roundup, Boni! Copyright and image permissions can really be a minefield, especially because the mines keep moving around! It may pay to hire a professional photo researcher and permissions expert (like me!) to help you locate and properly licenses images. I work primarily with publishers and authors and I'm always looking for new and interesting projects!

    • Hi, Nicole. I wrote a non-fiction science book with several images, and need help sorting out what to do with each.

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