Is it OK to use any photo I find on the Internet? If I find a photo in the Google Image Search (TM), can I use it any way I want? On Flickr? If I find a Creative Commons photo, can I change it or post it on my Web page? How do I find out what kind of license a Creative Commons photo has? How do I know what license protects a photo I find on the Web?
The answers are rarely what you want to hear. You can't use just any photo you find on the Internet. You can't use just any image you find on the Google Image Search (TM), Flickr, Yahoo!, or any photo sharing site. You need permission to use them. Permission may be granted by licenses stated explicitly on the photo sharing site. Permission may have to be requested. But even then, it's not that simple.
The rules for intellectual property of photos are much the same as the rules for intellectual property regarding text. You need to hunt down permissions. You must hunt down who owns the copyright and what, if any, rights the creator is offering. Often the rights offered don't allow commercial use and don't allow you to modify the work. Sometimes it's obvious; more often, it's not.
Although I'm not a lawyer, I am familiar with some of the basics of intellectual property law regarding using images online in the U.S. The most common infraction I see on the Internet is people taking photos from a website - an e-commerce site, usually, but others, too - and putting the photos up on their blog or website along with a photo credit and maybe even a link, reasoning "It's okay as long as I credit them. And besides, the photographer is glad of the exposure."
Neither is true. You need either explicit permission from the owner of the photograph (and that owner may not actually be the e-commerce site itself) or you need to establish that the appropriate rights are associated with the photo and that you are doing everything you need to do to use the photo legally. For example, if you use a photo on Flickr that has a Creative Commons License, it doesn't necessarily mean that you can use the photo. You must understand the different types of Creative Commons licenses and then do your part to include the necessary credits, use the photo only according to the rights the owner of the photo grants, and so on.
The second most common infraction I see is people assuming it's okay to post on their own website, article page, or web page a photo or image they downloaded at a photo sharing site like Flickr or Wikimedia even when it doesn't offer rights for commercial use. Not all use of images is commercial, true. But these people think that putting the image onto an article page with ads isn't the same as using images for commercial use. That's wrong. It is commercial use to put up a photo on a hub at HubPages that has ads, for example, or on an article at Suite101, or on an article at eHow.
What is commercial use? I'm not a lawyer and if I try to define it for you, I'd get into territory I have no business going. But trust me - putting an image up on a page that will earn you money by advertising or affiliate links is commercial use. Don't do it unless the rights granted you to use the photo include commercial use.
All this can be terribly discouraging and confusing for website owners and online content writers who act in good faith to not go against the intellectual property rights of photographers.
I used to have an example here of one confusing search using the search Creative Commons function. The confusion's since been fixed, it appears - yay! But the whole thing remains a confusing mess and the only way to do the right thing is to study the rules. Basically, if you want to use somebody else's work on the Internet to make money for yourself, you'll need to understand the licenses very well. That's part of your job.
Whenever you find a page like this fabulous one describing how to use Creative Commons Images from Flickr, you feel lucky - it explains at least some information about interpreting the licensing code for Flickr photos and Flickr images. But mostly, you have to piece together the info like the veriest usage license detective.
Now, consider this. Many eHow contributors take their own photos or create their own images. Others get permission to use photos on eHow. Many eHow members pay for the use of photos. But even when you pay, you may not always have the right to display the photo on eHow.
"You hereby grant eHow a worldwide, royalty-free, freely transferable, freely sublicensable (through unlimited levels of sublicense), non-exclusive license to use, reproduce, modify, transmit, distribute, [my emphasis] publicly perform and display (including in each case by means of a digital audio transmission), and create derivative works of the Content, in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed."
EHow is reserving the right to use the content - for content, read text, video, and photos - almost any way they want. So in some cases, even using photos that you've paid to use by publishing them on eHow instead of your own site may be a bad idea.
What's more, if a photo features a person's image, then that person may have certain rights, such as model rights / personality rights, not to have that photo published. In the UK and other countries, there may be the potential issue of defamation if the photo is used in a way other than what is intended. The person in the photograph may have released the right to publish the work bearing their image...or not. The rules are complex. Wikimedia Commons touches on these issues here in this article on using images from Wikimedia.
Seem like there are no simple answers? There aren't. Even lawyers don't agree on a number of intellectual property issues. The problem is that the Internet is changing the way we treat intellectual property. We're living in a period that later will be viewed as a time of radical transition.
Traditional trademark, patent, copyright, and other intellectual property issues are based on a world of tangible media, finite publication, slow development processes, and easy identifiers. The Internet is a world of virtual media, eternal publication, rapid development, and diffused identifiers. What this means for intellectual property is hard to tell. But I sure would like to be around in fifty years to see what it's like.
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