One Photo is Worth a Thousand Dollars

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Everyone else does it–downloads an image from the internet, pastes it on their website or blog, and moves on, ignoring or forgetting they are using someone’s property without permission. You tell yourself no will know and no will care.
But perhaps a little voice in your head is warning you that someday you’ll get a nasty lawyer letter demanding a thousand-dollar payment for one casually-posted photo.
The little voice is right.
Thanks to improving technology, your chances of getting that lawyer letter are going up. Reverse image search engines have made images as easy to search as words. Photographers, artists, and stock image companies use TinEye to scan the internet for infringing users.
But it’s fair use, you argue. You are using the image for non-commercial, educational, critical, or commentary uses only. Maybe yes, but do you want to fight that fight with Getty Images or Reuters News or Rupert Murdoch?
If your website or blog has images plucked off the internet without permission, then take an hour to clean it up before you get the lawyer letter. The process is easier than you think.
Delete the Images. This is the simplest way. Remove unauthorized images with a few clicks.
However, if you want to continue to use an image, read on.
Find the Owner. Do a reverse image search. Go to and click on Images. In the search box, click on the camera icon, upload the image or type in the URL, and hit enter. You’ll get a list of sites where the image is found. You may find the copyright owner among the results.
Ask for Permission. If you find the owner and it is an individual (and not a professional photographer, graphic artist, or stock image site), send the owner an email. Explain how you are using the image and ask for permission. The owner may be happy to give permission if you provide attribution and a link.
Buy a License. If the find the image on a stock image site such as IStockPhoto, Dreamstime or GettyImages, then sooner or later you will get the lawyer letter. Delete the image from your blog or buy a license and replace it with a licensed image. For most internet purposes, you can use a small, low-resolution image, and the price may be as little as $1. For more information on how to find and use stock images, see my blog post Stock Images—A Little Money Goes A Long Way.
If the image belongs to a professional artist or photographer, then you might as well delete it. The cost of a license may be quite high.
Use a Free Image. Many people don’t realize millions of images are in the public domain or available for free under a Creative Commons license. Public domain images include those owned by the Library of Congress, a terrific resource. Any image 95 or more years old is also in the public domain. For more sources of public domain images, see my blog post, Is it Public Domain or Isn’t It?
Creative Commons’ licenses permit copyright holders to make their work available for free. Go to the Creative Commons site and search for available images on Flickr and other sites. Look for images that may be modified and used for commercial purposes. (On the Creative Commons site, check those boxes before you search.) Be sure to provide attribution to the creator. Creative Commons provides attribution guidelines.
Other sites, such as MorgueFile, offer free images. Be sure to click on Terms of Use or License and read the restrictions. Stockvault images may be used for only non-commercial purposes, while Openphoto requires you give attribution to the copyright owner. Freeimages and others offer no guaranty you may use the images legally, which makes me nervous. I would not use a free image for anything as important as my book cover or website banner. I would buy an image from a stock image site.
One warning about using Creative Commons licensed or free images; do not use images where you can see people’s faces. You don’t know whether the photographer obtained appropriate releases. If you want to use an image of a person, create your own (with the appropriate releases) or purchase a stock image from one of the larger companies. They guaranty that releases and permissions were obtained and have deeper pockets to pay for lawsuits should they be wrong.
Going forward, use these resources to find strong images for your website and blog. Surprisingly, it won’t take you any longer than the old hit-or-miss method. Best of all, you will silence that that little voice in your head.


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3 responses to “One Photo is Worth a Thousand Dollars”

  1. Geri says:

    Thanks so much Helen-
    When we were first starting out, we made this very costly mistake. We searched for “Free” images and posted them all over our blog. We got the dreaded lawyer letter and it cost us nearly $2000! We were so upset- I mean we put in “free” images but what we didn’t notice was in the corner of the screen in grey on black (made to be missed?) it said that it “may” have a copyright. We offered to just take the image down but, alas, that wasn’t good enough. We have since paid for a photo/illustration service and pay for our images. Hard lesson to learn.

  2. Jane H. says:

    Geri, This is so important and seems to be in need of being mentioned again and again; so many seem totally unaware that others’ online property may only be used with their permission. I have used others’ images (mostly through Creative Commons, some Wikipedia, some LoC) for many years and found the photographers are often totally agreeable about their work being used BUT REQUEST/REQUIRE THAT THEY BE GIVEN ATTRIBUTION. If the owner of the photograph/text etc., requires remuneration, that must also be respected or we may not use it. We need to respect others’ rights in addition to our own.

  3. G P Peters says:

    My recommendation is just pay for the rights to the photo. My jacket is a collage of several photos and the cost was minimal. We simply purchased the rights and gave credit to the photographers. As a writer, I want to get paid for my art, and so should the photographer.

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