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Rules for Using Images Online


Whether your business has a website, a social media presence, or both, at some point you’re going to want to use images. What are the rules around using images online?

True or False: If I Find It Online, It’s Free to Use

False! You can find images online all over the place – Google Images, Instagram, your competitor’s websites, you name it. Those are not free to use. In most cases, those images will be protected under the copyright law of the U.S. or another country. “Copyright” can be understood simply to mean “you can’t use it without permission.”

Under U.S. law, you can be fined up to $150,000 for using a copyrighted image without permission. Don’t do it.

These rules apply to all kinds of images – photos, drawings, GIFs, memes, emoji…any kind of visual file.

Click here for a free 3-step checklist for using images online

True or False: If Everyone Else is Using an Image, I Can Use It for Free

False! Copyright holders don’t have to go after every infringer. You don’t want to be the unlucky one who receives a Cease and Desist letter from their law firm.

True or False: This Also Applies to Memes

True! Memes, no matter how popular, are based on someone else’s copyright. You can get in legal trouble for using a meme on your website or in your social media channels.

True or False: If I’m Not Making Money Off It, I Can Use an Image

False! The law applies whether or not you’re directly monetizing the image.

True or False: If I Own the Copyright, I Can Use It Wherever I Want

True! This usually applies to images that you created or that an employee created for you. If you own the image, you can use it whenever or wherever you like.

Note that I said employee – if you paid someone else to create the image, but they’re not an employee of your company, then you need a “Work For Hire Agreement”. Click here to learn more about Work For Hire Agreements.

True or False: You Can Buy or License the Right to Use an Image

True! If you want to use an image, you have two options.

First, you can buy the copyright. This usually applies when the owner of the image is an individual and the image isn’t very famous or valuable.

Second, and more commonly, you can license the copyright. This means you enter into a contract where you pay for the right to use the image. This is how stock photo websites like iStock operate.

Always be careful to read the terms of the license. Sometimes your license is limited to a certain number or type of uses. If you have any questions, contact the company to make sure you’re following the rules.

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