10 bogus excuses that people use when they steal a photo from the Internet

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So you think you have a good reason/excuse to use a photo you found on the Internet without asking the photographer who took it? Let’s see if it can stand the test.

1. There was no “copyright” logo or any other watermark on the photo

Copyrights exist by default. As soon as an amateur or professional photographer hits the shutter button, all the power of the copyright law is now associated with the photo. Therefore, a photographer does not have to specify on the photo or on his website that the photo is protected by copyright. Unless specified otherwise, consider a photo as copyrighted.

2. The photo is on the Internet, therefore it is free to use!

Is a photo easy to copy when it’s on the Internet? Yes. Does a photo lose its copyright status when it’s uploaded on the Internet? No.

A photo does not magically fall into the public domain when it’s uploaded to the Internet. The photographer keeps his copyright and, depending of the country, his photo will remain copyrighted between 50 to 70 years after his death. Only after that will it fall on the public domain.

3. I found it on Google Image, therefore it is free to use.

Google Image is not a free stock photo agency. Google does not owns any photos showed as a result of your search. Google’s job is to find images that fit your search query. Someone else own the photos and the copyrights.

4. It’s on Facebook, and everything on Facebook is on public domain.

Contrary to the common belief, a photographer does not lose his copyright when a photo is uploaded on Facebook. Facebook Term of Service says:

You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook

So can you share a photo posted on Facebook? Usually, but under certain conditions. Facebook Term of Service says:

you can control how [your photo] is shared through your privacy and application settings.

That means a photo on Facebook can be shared by another user only by using the “share” button and only if the photographer allows it from his privacy setting. You cannot save it on your computer and use it anywhere else on Facebook or the Internet.

5. But I won’t make money off this photo! It’s just for [my blog / my personal website / my Facebook]

Making money or not does not change a thing. It is still a copyright violation. Here in Canada, Copyright law states that statutory damages will be between $100 and $5,000 per photo if used in a non-commercial purpose (it would be $500 to $20,000 per photo if used commercially). You think you will never get sued for using a photo on a non-commercial website? Think again. It is unlikely, but it IS possible.

6. There was the photographer’s [logo / name / email address] watermarked on the photo. If he put it there, it was so he can advertise his business when we share his photo, right?

No. Just… No….

7. This photo is not [good looking enough / original enough] to be protected by the copyright law.

Photograph a white paper sheet on a white table during a snow storm with your iPhone. This photo will be just as protected by copyright law as the last celebrity portrait of Annie Leibovitz shot with $200,000 of equipment.

8. I appear in this photo, therefore I can use it!

This seems logical, but no. Legally, the photographer has the copyright on this photo because he took it. The photograph is HIS artistic interpretation of you.

So if you were photographed when you weere part of a protest, a sport event or if you were the subject of his street photography, you need to ask the photographer first before using it.

Of course, if you hired a photographer to do, for instance, your business portrait, he likely gave you the license to use it. However, the photographer keeps the copyright.

9. I wrote the photographer’s name under the photo on my webpage. It’s good advertising for him!

In 7 years of doing photography professionally, never has someone called to hire me, stating that he saw my name under a random photo he stumbled onto on the Internet.

Copyright law includes the notion of “monopoly of economic exploitation” of a photo. Only the owner of the copyright can decide how the photo will be used. Doing “advertisement” for the photographer is both not a valid or legal reason to use a photo without first asking the photographer. Especially since it is legally mandatory in most countries to put a photo credit under a photo, even when you pay for the license to use it.

10. Millions of people are doing it!

This argument is invalid. Unless of course you can point me out the article of law that tells exactly how many people doing something illegal is needed to make that act legal.


All of that said… Is it possible to police the web and stop every copyright infringement? No. It is technologically impossible to stop someone from lifting your photos, and I would need three lives to sue every infringers. Let’s put it this way: if you see an unattended bike in a park, would you decide not to steal it because you fear of getting caught, or because you know it is morally wrong? If it’s the former, I can’t help you. If it’s the later, maybe this post will change your perceptions of how « we » should use photos on the Internet.

Comments (50)

  • If you photograph your computer screen and on the screen there is an article with a picture of, let’s say, Obama, can you use that picture on your blog post about Obama and american politics?

  • Jennifer McNaughton

    Hi Francis, and thanks for this article! I saw the shared version by Roy Greenslade, which I shared to my Facebook photography page.

    I manage a few other pages, and am asking your permission to copy & paste the text to each page, giving the credit to you, of course!

    Thanks again!
    ThruJensLens Photography (find me on Facebook!)

  • In an ideal world Francis. I agree with Harry Wood … »which is why copyright often stifles creativity and quashes a spirit of free sharing on the internet. If you want to liberate people to do creative things with your photos without the need to ask for permission. Release your photos with a creative commons license. Lots of people do this with photos on flickr for example. – did you get your copyright or pay license fees for the light you use to make the photograph – the angles would make many lawyers quite wealthy. if someone is using your image to make some money , it would be nice to get a cut I know.

  • Hi,

    I came across this article through The Guardian. Extremely on point and well written.

    I am currently battling photo theft with Government agencies as well as Facebook pages who feel its ok to use pictures without consent or compensation. So frustrating especially since the legal framework (in Kenya) does not help in any way.

  • I appreciate your clarity and your message in this post. Since I teach digital citizenship two teenagers, I would like to know if I may reprint your article for use in my class.

  • Check out the FREE digital download about copyright myths by the Graphic Artists Guild that I co-wrote with San Francisco IP attorney Linda Joy Kattwinkel.
    Some point on the comments:
    The photographer (person taking the photo) owns the copyright to the photo. There is no co-ownership of copyright with the people in the photo. Right of publicity (publicity rights)aka personality rights are entirely separate and are part of privacy laws, not copyright law. The photographer may need permission from a person in the photo according to right of publicity laws, but the person in the photo has no claim to copyright.

    If you take a photo of copyrighted artwork, and the composition of your photo is entirely someone else’s artwork, you do own the copyright to your photo but you need permission from the artist whose work you photographed to reproduce the photo. The photo would be considered a derivative of the artwork.

  • That bicycle is solid and singular rather than infinitely replicable. Can’t you find a closer example? Let’s have a world where memorising a poem and reciting it to others is illegal.

  • Hi,

    This was written for the Canadians and I am from the UK. I am 100% certain that the laws would differ, but not entirely sure by how much.

    Does anyone know if there is a UK version of this out there or know if this would still relate to the UK?

    Many thanks indeed for any feedback

    Regards, Jay

  • « The photograph is HIS artistic interpretation of you. »
    « So if you were photographed when you were part of a protest, a sport event or if you were the subject of his/her street photography, you need to ask the photographer first before using it.
    ?? to both of them!!
    The photographer need to ask me first before using it or even shooting !!
    I got my copyright of myself and I am not « magically fall into the public domain when I am in public » After all this is my privacy to be with anyone I wish and I don’t want any publicity with out my permission.
    So, the area of « public domain » fall sort of « copyrights » and there in no area for restriction of law makers beyond commercial use. Fair use, flow of information, public domain are all « grey areas » and should remain « grey ».

  • Back in 1995 when i first went online i remember that the « rules » said that if not otherwise stated, everything was free on the net.
    That was the general idea, and i still live by it. If you do not want anyone using your work, then you either watermark the pictures or decrease the technical quality so it’s not usable for much…
    That is what i do with my pictures, if they are good enough to « not give away » i watermark them with software i bought for the purpose!

    I also think that is generally is the best practice anyway, because internet is borderless and different countries have different rules, and people are different too…

  • @HeruLL (#27) & Dan (#25):
    It it’s a translation, it’s OK. Of course, please link back to original article. But Dan, if it’s in English, I would prefer if you would link directly to this blog post :)
    You can print and give, tho.

    Thank you!

  • @Drew (#23)
    A photo is alway an artistic interpretation of something/someone else. The bank would have the (c) on the footage, but no image can be used in a commercial setting without the people appearing in the photo.

  • @Drew (#24): The photo of the tatoo is the artistic interpretation of the tatoo by the photographer. He could use it in an editorial setting, but not commercial if he does not had the tatoo artist’s permission.

  • Nicely written.
    Love the way you though.
    May I share this article on my personal blog in Bahasa Indonesia language. I thought, it’s gonna be interesting and inspiring for Indonesia people, whom usually using photographs without purchasing the licenses

  • BTW Drew, if you were in public, (e.g. the bank) and the owner of the property the bank is located in does not forbid photographer, you legally have no reason to expect privacy and therefore if you get in the way of the where the photographer is pointing the camera. You really are fair game in most cases.

  • Francis…

    Can I use (copy) this list of ten items and post it on MY website, and print a copy and keep it in my desk/camera bag to give/mail to people that believe they should be allowed to use my photos to/for [insert reason here}?


  • So if I go into a bank, and the bank has a security camera running, I’ve lost creative control over my body, and perhaps even an image of my bank-book, or deposit slip, and the bank’s security system holds copyright over the photos (frames of film – each is a photo)(even if everyone is digital now), the bank can buy the rights from the bank security firm, and use my image in advertising, without any compensation to me? Somehow, that doesn’t seem right. THE SAME WAY, that if I’m watching a sporting event, « live » on tv, a lot of times, fan t-shirts or signs are blurred out … is that also copyright or trademark infringement? Or just « the pepsi center » not wanting a « coke emblem » visible in their building? SHOULDN’T THE PERSON IN THE PHOTO have the right to order the photog to « blur » them out, because whether it’s copyright, trademark, patent, genetic patent pending or some other legal term, it’s MY body and MY image that was taken, and I did not sign any release for either its commercial or non-commercial use?

  • There are changes afoot in the UK, where the government is making it easier for theft (sorry use of) photos taken by individuals…as long as the company that has nicked,sorry « used » the photograph has gone to some lengths (not identified what lengths!) to find the individual owner…and if they are unable to do so then they will be given the right to use (sorry « nick ») the photo for their own gains

  • What about digital art, writings, poetry? Since these all have creators, it would be the same for copyright ownership as with a photographer and their photo, correct? I am having a huge problem with a website denying me access to my work (long story involving site owner’s obsessive interest), but yet, the staff stated to the members that they could use my work as they wanted AND just recently, the site featured a work of mine.

  • If you are the photographer and someone gave you permission to take their photo then there is no such thing as joint custody of the photo.the photographer owns the copyright plain and simple.On face book I post photo’s of my grandchildren and my ex mother in law used to steal them until I told her I owned the copyright’s to it and could sue her.I wouldn’t mind her having the photo’s if she would only ask before just taking them.I have found this information really helpful.Thank you for posting…

  • I was the first one!!

    I saw my foto in facebook and told them (a fanpage from a company) the answer was:

    « it’s first time ever that somebody complains about a photo on fb. Sorry, we didn’t mean to hurt you. »

  • …which is why copyright often stifles creativity and quashes a spirit of free sharing on the internet.

    If you want to liberate people to do creative things with your photos without the need to ask for permission. Release your photos with a creative commons license. Lots of people do this with photos on flickr for example.

    I’d *love* people to do something interesting with my humble photographic works, and I recognise that photos are plentiful on the internet. If you can’t use my photo easily, you will probably move on and use someone else’s, or you’ll find it easier to go take a photo yourself. So we can have a lose-lose situation with « all rights reserved » or a win-win situation with open licensing.

  • A model release is more about the subject of an image giving a publisher the right to use their « likeness » for promotional purposes and relates more to publicity rights than copyright.

    Although the idea of joint copyright is an interesting one. What would happen if two people combined to take an image?

  • Nice posting! This discussion is going on in German’s « Freelens » since years. The main problem for me is not the fee issue, but in what context a photograph is being used by whom to what effect. The golden rule is: Without watermark nothing goes online. Those spending time to get it out are nuts. But commercial people usually are asking if they can have a copy. CC3.0 should become a standard.

  • When there is a model release form: The photographer still owns the copyright and is still entitled to payment but the model release may regulate how the model is being paid and how the image can be used.

  • So what about when there is a model release form that has been signed and say the model or photographer makes money of a pic. Is the photographer still entitled to payment if money is made off that photo if the model makes and money from it?
    Could anyone please clarify this for me. It would be most appreciated.

  • I’ve spoken to a few people over the years who complain about theft of their images, then boast about how they have a copy of Photoshop they « got from a mate for free/nicked/etc »

    I wonder how many people who agree with this article have a « dodgy » copy of Photoshop and think its fine to steal from Adobe??

  • Great Posting!

    I take lousy pics, yet I see them all over the internet taken by people who are either to lazy to take their own or who do not even have access to the item they are writing about. (If you steal a pic, what are the odds that you are not above plagiarizing or just plain making it up when you « write » your article?)

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