How to Get Huge Fines for Using Images (Do THIS Instead)

  • 1
  • March 2, 2017

Image Copyright Laws

image copyright laws

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Well, let me tell you something: a picture could end up being worth way more than a thousand words if you use it without permission. Put the wrong one on your blog or Facebook page and it might cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Over the last few years there has been a steady increase in the number of social media users and bloggers being hit with hefty finds as a result of posting images taken from the internet.

Those images weren’t necessarily grabbed from Google images, either. In some cases, they’re taken from sites that promote “free stock images” – sites that even the most popular image design apps use.

In a previous article, I suggest using Typorama to save time creating graphics. And while I still LOVE and use the app, there may be a risk in using Pixabay background images on the app (and other free image sites in general) that you need to be aware of.

FYI, I just broke one of my own rules of writing in that last paragraph by qualifying that there “may” be a risk. I hate weak, qualified statements…but in this case it couldn’t be helped.

This issue is just too confusing and there’s too much contradictory information floating around on the interweb for me to unequivocally make that statement. Honestly, to be air-tight certain you’re in the clear when it comes to image copyright laws, I advise speaking to a copyright attorney when in doubt. Better yet, live by the “better safe than sorry” maxim.

All that said, I’ve done my best to make sense of this issue and provide the most accurate info on image copyright laws as I was able to research it. So let’s get to it!

What is copyright?

According to the US Copyright Office, a copyright is “a form of intellectual property law [that] protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.”

Basically, that’s a long-winded way of saying that anything you create is copyrighted, and that copyright attaches the moment of creation – whether or not it’s published online. That means that as of this exact moment, this blog post is copyrighted (even though I haven’t yet published it online). The moment you snap a picture with your iPhone, you’re protected because you took it and it’s your creation.

So when IS it okay to use someone else’s image?

The short answer: when you have permission from the person who created the image (ideally in written form to protect yourself).

That said, there are billions of pictures on the internet and many of them are not authorized. However, they aren’t necessarily infringing on the copyright either.

Confusing, right?! Welcome to the grey area of image copyright laws (and where so many people get in trouble).

In many cases, people are protected by “fair use.”

What is fair use in copyright law?

“Fair use” is basically the exception to the rule. In other words, you must have the authorization of the creator UNLESS one of these four factors apply:

  1. The purpose of use: educational, scholarly, nonprofit, reporting, reviewing or research.

  2. The nature of use: fact based or public content.

  3. The amount and substantiality used. Only a small piece of the image was used or only a thumbnail or low resolution version.

  4. The market effect: you couldn’t have purchased or licensed the work.

That said, do you know what does NOT constitute as a defense against copyright infringement?

  • You didn’t know that material was copyrighted.

  • You’ve modified the image.

  • You acknowledged the original creator.

  • You’re using any kind of disclaimer on your website.

That first bullet point is where people most often get in trouble. They THINK they’re in compliance with image copyright laws since they came from a free stock photography site, or even Google creative commons.

Be Wary of “Creative Commons” Images

The creative commons license allows the content creative to give others the right to use their copyrighted work on the provision you acknowledge the owner.

While it seems like this would be the simple solution to the problem and a way for bloggers and social media users to share content without fear, it isn’t so cut and dry.

If you search for images under Google’s creative commons, the details of who created the content is not given. This makes it impossible for the creator to be acknowledged.

It certainly appears these images are safe to use since they’re “Labeled for reuse.” But the moment you post a picture to your social media account without naming the creator, you are, by default, claiming ownership and in breach of image copyright laws.

Scary, right?

There is also another risk to those who download free stock images. Even if the photographer did grant a Creative Commons License to use the image, do you know if they obtained permission to photograph all of the identifiable people in the picture?

Clearly, it’s risky to use free stock images… so what do you do instead to stay in compliance with image copyright laws?

You basically have two solutions: take all your photos yourself or buy stock photography.

The Risk of Taking Your Own Photos

I know what you’re thinking, “But I’m taking the pictures myself! They’re my own content! How could there possibly be a risk??!”

Well, that’s what Chuck Moran thought when he told us his story.

As an artist photographer, Chuck knows that he has the right to photograph people in public places. As he explains, “Members of the public have a very limited scope of privacy rights when they are in public places. Basically, anyone can be photographed without their consent except when they have secluded themselves in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy such as dressing rooms, restrooms, medical facilities, and inside their homes.”

But the question Chuck poses is that, just because you CAN photograph someone without their permission, SHOULD you?

There is also something else to consider: people expect high quality on social media. I tell my clients that their Instagram for their business should, ideally, look like a magazine. That’s what will get the most engagement and followers. That’s what will get the most results.

Are you talented enough with your iPhone to accomplish that?

Perhaps you are, but if not…

Purchase Stock Images

I’ve been purchasing stock photography and images since the day I started my business – a decision I made when Kim Garst warned Social Media Mastery course members to avoid the potential risks of “free photos.”

With high resolution stock photography, I know that I’m creating images my audience will actually want to engage with. Plus, I bought them and always sleep easy because I know I’m protected.

Now I know a lot of you may be resistant to the idea of purchasing stock photos. I’m sure you know how expensive they are in some cases. Still, it is not nearly expensive as you may think.

One of my favorite sites, and the one I started using from day one, is Deposit Photos. They have a number of different subscription plans to fit even the smallest budget.

And the best part?

AppSumo is currently offering an amazing deal for stock photography at Deposit Photos. I highly encourage you to take a look. This deal was on the site a couple of times before (I purchased it twice) and it always sells out fast.

If you aren’t familiar with the AppSumo, it’s a website that offers amazing deals on courses and tools to help entrepreneurs build their businesses. Read this recent article to learn more about why AppSumo’s is my favorite email of the day.

Final Thoughts

I understand that it may be tempting to continue downloading images from free sites. But trust me, the most risky thing you could do is think, “it’ll never happen to me.” It can.

One image could potentially result in thousands of dollars in fines for copyright infringement. I highly encourage you to avoid the risk. Instead, make the small investment in stock photography (or take all of your photos yourself). I promise you that you’ll sleep easier at night knowing you’re safe from potential lawsuits.

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Author Sheena White

Sheena White is a copywriter and social media strategist who helps clients rock their sales copy in order to increase conversions. She also has a copywriting course where she teaches entrepreneurs the strategies they need to write great sales copy.

More posts by Sheena White
  • Don Shetterly

    I usually just use my own iphone to take pictures (or one of my more expensive cameras). Yes, I probably lose the professional camera quality, but for the most part, what I do – works! SO, I’m okay with that. The free sites do bother me too because they just sound too good to be true. I’ll check out these sites you’ve shared here, but if it is something major, I definitely will buy the stock image so I’m protected.

    What about the images on CANVA? I know many are free and some are for purchase? I was under the impression/understanding that they are good to use in a blog.

    • I love Canva. They have limited free images, but a pretty good database of paid images that are only $1 each. Plus their design platform is awesome. I also have an unlimited plan with, which was an AppSumo deal sometime last year. Not sure if they have any non-monthly plans, but you might want to take a look.

      • Thanks for chiming in, David!

        We got the Stock Unlimited deal too 🙂

    • Good question. We’re not 100% sure but best guess is it depends on where CANVA is getting those images. We’d advise erring on the side of caution but CANVA support may have an answer. Looks like they also have a licensing plan you may want to check out:

  • Just to be clear, the letters that these image companies send out are NOT fines, neither are they invoices. They are settlements. Simply, they are a proposed amount which you can agree or not agree to pay, but if you do not, they will probably take further action. In any settlement, one party will put forward an amount, and the other party may counter it. Same here. If you get a settlement letter, you can counter it with another offer. So if say, they send a settlement letter for $1000, you’re perfectly within your rights to offer $100 (or $50 or $10, if that’s what you think the image is worth). They may or may not accept, but my point is, you don’t settle on the first amount they send you, but don’t ignore their letter either.

    • Hi Ian, thanks for the info, very helpful but hope we never need it 😉 – cheers!

  • Kimberly Ranee Hicks

    I know firsthand what this article is talking about. When I got contacted by Google that I had a picture on my blog that was “copywritten” I was beside myself. I pride myself on doing the right thing, and I thought I had a right to post this photo because it said it was free to use, but boy how WRONG I was. So, after that horrible experience being made to feel as though I was a thief, certainly not knowingly at least, I purchase all my photos. This way I definitely sleep easier at night. I do not EVER want to receive an email from Google telling me I’m stealing someone’s work. It wasn’t my intention. This article hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what happened to me, so I know this is real talk! I use Canva and any other stock photo site to bring colorful elements to my blog. Outstanding post. Thanks for sharing. Wish I had found this a few years ago, but better late than never! 🙂

  • Lisette Otero

    Only problem with stock photography is that they can look canned and not authentic. So I would say if you are going to do stock then make sure they look like real people who would visit you shop etc. If you are based in Florida, I would not expect to see photos of the snow or people in sweaters or heavy wool suits on. Or just hire a local photographer and get model releases.

  • Mathukutty P.V.

    I have used many photos from pixabay and commons wikimedia with atribution as per their html. Is it wrong to use?

  • I had asked earlier also about wikimedia commons and pixabay images. No reply received. Is it allowed to take an image from pixabay or canva and add text and create image on Canva or other sw. Is that also against copyright? Now I have one doubt, If need photos of great persons like Bill Gates, Elon Musk etc, we have to depend on wikimedia or such sites. It is not possible to get take their photos and use on blog. What to do in this situation? Are vector images also copyrighted?

    • Hi Mathukutty, we believe you can use pixabay images and wikimedia commons for any purpose and you can alter them, but to be completely safe you’ll want to check the terms on their site. Pictures of famous people can be trickier. Just make sure you review the stipulations from whatever site you find them on and contact them if you’re not sure.

      • famous people photos are from wikimedia commons with attribution link provided by them. Thanks for your quick reply. I am just new in paid hosting. So reading expert blogs and doing. I don’t want get into any problem. My blog showing ads, but I am not earning much and can’t afford any such fine now. It is started in September 2017 only.