The online portfolio of Dan Gould: Cambridge-based award-winning freelance graphic designer specialising in logo design/branding, web design, UX/UI, design for print and illustration.

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Image and Font Copyright Rules for Designers & Clients – Part One

Copyright QuestionsA special guest post by the inimitable Lucy Becker of Spotty Octopus (social media extraordinaire!):


With around 571 new websites going live every minute how do you make yours stand out?

Literally thousands of websites open and close every day, its estimated there were around 180,000,000 active sites in January 2014 (and 861,379,000 registered host names). You can see in real time the number of live sites here.

According to data by Tony Haile of Chartbeat, 55% of visitors to your website will spend less than 15 seconds on it. So you need to grab their attention, and grab it quick.

An obvious way to do this is the look and feel of the site, which is largely achieved by the images and fonts you use.

Whether you’re designing a website, creating a blog or putting out a post on social media we all know how critical finding the right image is.  As you’ll read in nearly every article on this subject “a picture is worth a thousand words” but it’s also worth a few likes, +1’s, RTs, pins and maybe even a subscribe or two.

It should come as no surprise then that images are big business (Getty, THE American stock photography agency, was sold in 2012 for $3.3billion) and as such people protect their work vehemently. Infringe on copyright laws and expect to pay the price at some point.

Getty Images are currently (September 2014) suing Microsoft over a new feature of its Bing search engine, claiming it encourages other websites to embed unlicensed pictures they find on the web.

The “Bing Image Widget,” which was released 22nd August, gives publishers the ability to create a panel on their websites that displays digital images supplied by Microsoft’s Bing search engine. The lawsuit claims that instead of drawing from a pool of licensed images, the widget grants access to the billions of images that can be found online, regardless of whether the photos are copyrighted.

“In effect, the defendant has turned the entirety of the world’s online images into little more than a vast, unlicensed ‘clip art’ collection for the benefit of those website publishers who implement the Bing Image Widget, all without seeking permission from the owners of copyrights in those images,” the lawsuit said. (Read more here: Getty Images sues Microsoft over new online photo tool)

Three Simple Ways to Avoid Illegally Using Images

Let’s face it, many of us have hopped over to Google images at some point and ‘borrowed’ an image, when we’ve been up against a deadline to get that blog post out, or had the perfect quote for a tweet and needed an image to go with it.

The issue with acquiring images in this way is that virtually every image you find on the web is copyrighted. Google Images is not a free stock photo library; it merely finds the images you’re searching for.

Putting a copyrighted image on your site without permission is the Russian roulette equivalent to copyright infringement; you may get away with it, you may not. And with tools such as Tineye making tracking images easier and cheaper, it’s more likely going to be the latter.

If you want to avoid image copyright issues then you have several options:

  1. Buy image licenses from a stock image library, graphic designer or photographer
  2. Take or create your own images
  3. Use a free image from a stock image site

Where possible we at Spotty Octopus use a graphic design company (in fact we use Dan Gould Design) for creating bespoke images. This is especially critical for logos and website design where you want to ensure that you have a unique look and feel.

While having a custom-made image is awesome, it’s not always possible (either for time or budget reasons). Unless you have a particular talent for photography or graphic design I would stay away from option 2, unprofessional images can do more damage than no image at all!

This leaves either buying a license for a stock image or using a free image. The sites that sell stock images, such as Getty, have comprehensive selections and search functionality which makes finding the ‘right’ image easier. The downsides are that buying a license can be expensive and having a license rarely means you have sole use of the image, so expect to see it cropping up in other places.

In recent years the number, and quality, of websites offering high-resolution free images has increased. These public domain images are often free to use in any way and many don’t require attribution. However always check on the individual sites, and if attribution is required then follow the requested format. The sites aren’t always as easy to search through or neatly categorised, but hey they’re free!

High Quality Free Image Websites

Some sites only supply royalty-free images or Creative Commons, while others may offer a mix.  Always make sure you check the restrictions before using a particular image, especially in regards to commercial use. Below are some of our favourite free image websites:

  • http://www.imcreator.com/free – A curated collection of free resources, all for commercial use. This site has a search function and also separates pictures into helpful collections such as:  business, technology, nature, inspiration, lifestyle etc.
  • http://unsplash.com/ – Free (do whatever you want) hi-resolution photos. This site has truly beautiful images, although no search functionality so lots of scrolling. 10 new images are added every week.
  • http://www.raumrot.com/10/ – Handpicked stockphotos for commercial and personal works. Some rights reserved, and they require attribution to the creator. No search but there are selections such as; business, nature, urban etc.

Creative Commons License – http://www.creativecommons.org.uk/ – Creative Commons is a non-profit organisation that assists authors and creators who want to voluntarily share their work, by providing free copyright licences and tools, so that others may take full and legal advantage of the Internet’s unprecedented wealth of science, knowledge and culture.

Beware of Royalty-Free, free doesn’t always means free. While the image may be used without paying royalty charges or a license fee for each use, there may be a one-off payment to obtain the image (such as on Getty’s iStock site). Also with a royalty-free image the owner (who may or may not be the creator) still retains the copyright.

Who Should License the Image, Client or Graphic Designer?

When working with a web or graphic designer it should be the client that has the license for the media, although the designer will often be able to source the image for you.

If the graphic designer creates a new image for a client then the copyright stays with them unless otherwise agreed in writing.

Derivative Works

A derivative work is one that is based on (derived from) other work. This could be a movie from a book, a painting from a photo or a song using samples.

While there is nothing stopping you from being inspired by the work of others, just tweaking it can still be copyright infringement. If you simply adapt the work of others it is still their work and they are entitled to any money you make from it.

If you’re not going to make money from using the image, certain uses are permitted under fair use rules, if your usage doesn’t meet these criteria then you could still face legal action.

How different a piece of work needs to be for it to not be considered an infringement is something of a grey area. According to Law on the web the test to ensure your work is not breaching copyright is to:

Present the original image and your new creation side by side and have an individual who is not trained in the arts determine whether there is an obvious visual connection between the two. If they determine that there is a connection, it is likely that there will be a breach of copyright.

UK copyright law states that as long as a new piece is not substantially derived from someone else’s earlier copyrighted work, elements of a copyrighted image can be used for example in a collage. However each case will be looked at in its own circumstances as determining whether a ‘substantial part’ of a copyrighted image has been used can be very subjective.”

So while it can be tempting to skip the ‘getting permission from the copyright owner’ step, failure to do so could end up you with facing legal action. The below highlights certain exceptions where the permission of the copyright owner is not required:

  • If copyright has expired (under UK law this typically means the author died over 70 years ago), the work will be in the public domain, and may be used as a basis for a derivative work without permission.
  • You may not require permission if the original work has a licence that explicitly allows the creation of a derivative work. The licence itself may also specify rules and conditions that must be adhered to.

Source: The UK Copyright Service

If you apply a copyright notice to derivative work you should also attribute the original ownership.  For example: Copyright © 2014 Thingamajig (adapted from ‘original work’; copyright © 2010 Thingumabob).

Further Reading:

The Intellectual Property Office has, as you would expect, extensive information on this topic answering questions such as; is permission always required to copy or use an image, I want to use images I found on the web, I want to use images found on the web on a commercial website.

You can download their helpful PDF here.

We’re not legal folk, this blog post does not provide definitive legal advice, it’s just a guide which we hope you find useful. Always check with the sites you are sourcing images from and if in doubt we advise you to err on the side of caution.

In Dan’s next post we’ll be looking at copyright issues around fonts and typefaces so make sure you’re following him on Twitter to see when it’s out.

We’d love to hear any image copyright issues you’ve had, or any sites that you recommend for finding fab, free images. Please leave a comment in the box below.

One thought on “Image and Font Copyright Rules for Designers & Clients – Part One”

  1. Jiva
     ·  Reply

    Hi, Thanks for the info, I’m keen to read about the typefaces, which you said would be in your next blog. Is it possible to link me to it? Jiva

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