The Internet Ain't the Wild West

The digital age has brought with it amazing things. Now more than ever, people can easily connect, post, and share images—all with a touch of a button.

However, in an ever-evolving, “tech-savvy” age, it can be easy to misunderstand how to use some of the common resources we come by. One of these commonly misused internet resources are copyrighted images.

So, without further ado, let's bust some myths and get to the bottom of copyrighted internet images.

Five common myths—busted

This is an extremely common myth. Copyright was originally created in order to allow individuals the freedom to share, distribute, and inspire others—yet, still protect their rights to their own creative work. Although the internet has significantly changed the media in the last couple of decades, creators still have the same rights to their creative works as if they were printed. Just because it’s public, doesn’t mean that you have rights to any image you find on the internet.

A copyright symbol used to be required in the past, but—since March 1, 1989—it’s no longer required (an effect of the Berne Convention Implementation Act, Copyright Law). The moment you press the round camera button on your iPhone, draw a doodle on your iPad, or snap a photograph with your digital camera—it’s yours—and it’s copyrighted. From that very moment, you are the only one who has the legal right to reproduce or publish your work (Merriam-Webster).

According to Section 504 of the Copyright Act, even without a copyright symbol, an image is still subject to copyright law. In fact, if you decide to use an image without permission, you could pay anywhere from $750 to $30,000—not to mention other court fees.

However, if a copyright symbol or watermark is present and you infringe upon that work, it’s considered intentional and you could pay upward to $150,000 (per infringement) in court—yikes!

Some sites such as Creative Commons allow users to search for images from owners that have given some level of approval to use, build upon, or share their images. These often require attribution, linking back, and permission. However, It’s probably best to assume all images are copyrighted—symbol or not.

Say someone were to sneak into an art gallery, snag a beautiful painting off of the wall to put in their own gallery. They state the name of the author upon displaying it. Does this make it right? Unfortunately, whether you give attribution or not, it’s still considered illegal to use an image without consent.

Fair use is a very complex doctrine (United States Copyright Office) that basically gives you the “right” to break the law under certain circumstances without consent or any disciplinary action. Under a court of law most “circumstances” that allow for fair use apply to very few, and they are usually ruled in a court of law. So, it’s best to really take into account why you’re using a copyrighted image without consent or contribution.

In ordered to be considered “fair use” the following must be examined:

  • Purpose: If you’re using an image for research, schoolwork/education, news reporting, parody, or commentary—you’re on the path to fair use. However, more often than not, the use must be for nonprofit purposes. If your company is for-profit, you might want to reconsider. According to Nolo—an educational, research, or other use that is for commercial purposes may not be considered fair use.
  • Nature: What is the nature of the use? For entertainment or advertising purposes? If it’s solely for entertainment, then you’re weighing towards the general public’s interest—which is more likely to be in favor of fair use. If you’re advertising your services or products, you’re likely receiving some sort of compensation (or were intending to), which would not be considered fair use. (Again, commercial use rarely ever falls under fair use.
  • Amount: How much of the image are you using? A small portion? If you are using a small area of the image, you might be within fair use guidelines. Beware: the courts may rule against you if the section used seems to represent the most significant part of the piece.
  • Effect: Know the effect on the potential market value. If you are preventing the creator from obtaining their profits or recognition, you might want to think twice.

In my opinion, it’s simply not worth the risk to assume fair use. Images are out there for you to use—just in the correct manner. Always be mindful of copyright practices, get permission from the owner, give credit, purchase it, and use it in a responsible manner. After all—photographers, designers, musicians, videographers, and artists alike make a living off of their creative works. Like many other professions, creatives put their heart and soul into their work—it’s, in a way, a part of them.

Something many of us often forget or don’t think about is that not everything you do on the internet goes unseen. An image that was wrongfully used can come back to haunt you months or even years down the road. Believe it or not, there are lawyers that specialize in copyright infringement cases.

So, what could happen? If you’re found guilty of infringing upon someone else’s work, you’ll most likely get a DMCA Takedown notice first. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (PDF), the owner of the creative work may request a DMCA Takedown notice, which then will notify you of the takedown. If you don’t comply, your site could be taken down without any further notice.

Unfortunately, even if you’ve taken the image down after receiving the takedown notice, you still could get an “Infringement Letter” (Cease and Desist Letter) from a lawyer and be taken to court. This could cost your company anywhere from $750-$150,000 per infringement, plus court fees (as mentioned in myth #2).

Are these myths worth the risk?

The best option to avoid any potential copyright infringement risks is to take your own photos by doing so personally or hiring a photographer and obtaining a license to the rights. However, not everyone has access to camera equipment or experience, but there are wonderful resources for beautiful stock images to purchase.

Sites for Quality Stock Images

  • iStock: iStock is my favorite “go-to” royalty-free stock image resource. A majority of photos you’ll find here look clean and professional—plus you can usually find just about any type of photograph suitable for any project—from nature to lifestyle.
  • Adobe Stock: Adobe Stock is one of the more recent stock sites. They have millions of high-quality photos that allow you to access and manage your purchased photos right in the Adobe programs—such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign from the Creative Cloud. From a design perspective, this could be a huge timesaver!
  • Thinkstock: While I don’t personally use Thinkstock, it’s another great stock photo resource. Thinkstock has selections from iStock and Getty Images, so you have a wide range of photo choices.

With most stock sites—such as the few above—you’ll need to purchase a subscription or plan in order to take advantage of these resources. (Some allow you to purchase one photo at a time.) No matter your budget—from high to low, you’re bound to find a plan with striking images to suit your needs.


  1. If you find an image on the internet, it’s probably copyrighted.
  2. All images are subject to copyright with or without the copyright symbol. (Unless otherwise specified and you obtain a license.)
  3. Giving attribution without getting permission and the license is still considered copyright infringement.
  4. Fair use allows you to break the law under certain circumstances. It’s best to never assume fair use unless you’re absolutely certain your use falls with the guidelines. The decision is made by a judge in court.
  5. Nowadays, technology has made it easier than ever to track down copyright infringement. Whether it was done days, month, or even years ago—it will most likely be uncovered at some point—with a hefty price tag.
  6. The best way to avoid copyright infringement is to take your own photos or hire a photographer—and gain the rights (or some) to the images. Plus—it’s a wonderful way to show off your products and/or services to your customers.
  7. Stock images are also a great way to help make content “pop,” and help your customers relate to your message. While there are tons of resources out there, be sure you’re using ones you trust and that you understand the license you purchase.

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Quality stock photos are a valuable and often essential resource for businesses. But building a photo library of your own photos—featuring your people, products, or services—is even better. Our talented photo-video team can help with that. Get in touch to discuss setting up a shoot.

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About the Author Cassandra "Cat" Swenson // Senior Designer

Cat is one of those rare and talented designers whose passion for excellent marketing stems from her deeper vision of a more humane world.

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