The pervasive growth of social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram over the past decade has made it a routine practice for many people to use images in support of posts, news items and blogs. Using images in this way is quick and easy to do and for marketing executives, product managers and active participants of your company social media programme it can be tempting to lift an image from the internet and use it on social media – to accompany a tweet or LinkedIn post, for example. However, there is one very good reason why such temptation ought to be avoided – copyright.

There seems to be a general lack of understanding concerning image copyright. Some people assume that if an image is posted online then it’s in the public domain and is not copyrighted, but they are wrong. Images published online are protected by copyright law, and it is generally the photographer (or artist/illustrator, depending on what kind of image it is) who owns the copyright. The image is their creation and therefore their intellectual property. There are certain exceptions to this rule. For example, if an image was created as part of the photographer’s employment, then it is the employer that will generally own the copyright. It should also be noted that social media sites have terms of service that allow them to use images that are posted on them, but this permission does not extend to anyone else.

Just because you have easy online access to images, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have the right to use them. Many such images will have been taken by professional photographers, who deserve to be paid for their time and work, and they must grant permission before you can use one of their images.

If a photographer grants you this permission, it is still essential for you to have the right licence. Most images come with some sort of copyright and usage licence. This legal protection may permit free use of the image, so long as it meets certain criteria, such as the source being credited, or the use being to support editorial, provided it is non-commercial. And’s that’s where caution needs to be taken when using these images in social media. If an image is used in a social media post that is work-related and helps to promote a client – a company blog or Twitter feed, for example – it will contribute towards a commercial gain and would therefore need a suitable licence covering commercial use.

It is worth remembering that there are many stock resources available online, which offer either free or inexpensive images, so there are alternatives to using copyright-protected items. You can also create images yourself, which generally means that you own the copyright and are free to use them as you like. There are some exceptions to this though, such as if you created an image during the course of being employed by a business or individual, in which case you would need their permission to use it. Also, if you were commissioned to take an image by a third party – wedding photos, for example – you would need to gain the permission of that third party to use them on the internet.

But if you’ve found that perfect image for your social media post and you want to use it and stay on the right side of the law, here’s what you should remember: get the photographer’s permission to use the image, make sure that you’ve got the right licence for it, and stick to the photographer’s instructions on how the image should be credited and used. That way you’ll have the image you want, and although you might have had to pay for it, at least it won’t result in you receiving a cease and desist letter, or worse, having legal action taken against you.

Written by Adrian

Adrian is the account director and co-owner of HHC Lewis. He started writing about industrial data communications technology before the ‘fieldbus wars’ took place, and only stops to tinker with his fantasy football team.
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