When can I use a picture? 8 answers on image rights

Public Impact Creative Director Jane Coney has cleared many thousands of images for use by major publishers such as Macmillan, Dorling Kindersley and BBC Worldwide. Here she sets out the basics that every marketing professional should know about using images in printed and digital communications. Here Jane provides answers to the 8 most important questions over image use that it’s dangerous to ignore.

When can I use a Picture? What are the rules on copyright? 

There are all sorts of pitfalls for the unaware in choosing photos and images for use in promotional leaflets and digital marketing. Photo copyright, permissions and personal consent are all elephant traps that can cause unnecessary problems from businesses. The availability of images from the web has made it easy to capture images and easier than ever to sleepwalk into problems that your competitors can use to damage your reputation. It’s your responsibility to ensure that you have the right to use the images in your marketing materials and if you follow the steps set out in this article you should avoid being caught out when using photographs – especially if you place them on a social network like Instagram.

Who owns Copyright?

Normally the rights to a photograph belong to the photographer (or to their employer). Photographers sell on or grant image rights to photo libraries and usage rights to media organisations, agencies and businesses. Rights can be bought and sold outright, for a limited duration or specific uses. It doesn’t matter who commissions or sets the shot up – the rights still belong to the photographer. These days a lot of photographers don’t bother where non-commercial organisations are concerned, but it is still wise to get an acknowledgement – an email will do – that you can use the shots as you intend.

Does it matter where the picture is taken?

Yes – and it can be complicated. The basic rule is that photographs taken in the public realm are owned by the photographer and need no permission. An image taken on privately owned land (which would include property owned publicly such as schools, hospitals and places with free public access such as shopping malls and railway platforms) requires the permission of the landowner – this is normally called a building permission/release. However common sense can be applied here – a head and shoulders portrait that is taken against a plain background will be OK – as the building cannot be identified it isn’t an issue. Also, where a location is hired for an event the building permission will become a matter for the hirer rather than the building owner – but it is always worth checking the hire agreement (not least so you can control the images at your own events).

Does it matter what is in the picture?

Yes and no. A picture that is taken in or from the public realm is generally free of restrictions – so items that may be subject to copyright, for example a company logo on a building, can be in the picture and legitimately used. So for example there is no problem with a photo call outside, for example, an energy company premises, so long as both the photographer AND the people in the photograph remain on the public highway. Beware of car parks and forecourts. In commercial situations this arises rarely but it is frequently an issue for not-for-profit charities and organisations with an advocacy or other public role.

Does it matter who is in the picture?

Again, the rights to a picture taken in the public realm belong to the photographer. Strictly speaking there is no need to gain the permission of anyone who happens to be in the picture. However if you are using an image to promote your company, products or services then you need a release from anyone involved and identifiable. This is because their presence is or could be taken as an endorsement of the product, company or service. When a picture is taken in a building you may need both a building permission and personal releases from those in the image. Crowd shots or illustrations of the public realm that clearly don’t imply endorsement may be slightly different, but many well-known media organisations will err on the side or caution, so you really ask if it is worth the risk.

Can we include children in our pictures?

Yes you can and they CAN be identifiable, but parental permission MUST always be obtained – and it should always be in writing. Get a model release and use it.

Can we use pictures from Newspapers?

Photos from newspapers are often the best ones to use because they are normally professional, well compose and lit – which means they look better when printed. It may seem obvious, but photos from newspapers or magazines of any sort always require the formal permission of the publication – and just because you, your boss or a member of your staff appears in the photo it doesn’t mean you can use it. Whether or not a newspaper will grant permission will depend on their corporate policy and on the attitude of the editor. If you do get permission, which for commercial organisations will probably include paying a fee, you may be required to give the paper or the photographer a credit alongside the image – it doesn’t need to be large, but don’t forget or it could come back to bite you. One good way of getting a free release from a local paper or trade journal is to do a charitable event – in that case they will usually provide a copy rather than look mean!

Can we use images from the Internet?

The Internet has changed everything – except copyright law (though it is trying pretty hard). Grabbing images from the internet is easy. It is also an easy way to get into hot water over the rights. We are not just talking about photographs here. Charts, drawings and logos all carry creative or commercial rights and it is an infringement of copyright to use those images without permission (in print OR on the web). This, again, applies to all kinds of images including portraits and, again, it doesn’t matter who is in the photograph. So just because the picture is of your Client’s CEO it’s not OK just to use it on their website – you may find the image belongs to a national newspaper or to one of their photographers, which wouldn’t be good. You should also be aware that things are changing. Social networks, through their terms and conditions may lay claim to image rights – very little of this has yet been tested in Court.

What’s the worst that could happen?

There is always a great difference between theory and practice and copyright law is civil rather than criminal. In practice you could grab an image, use it without permission and get away with it. You could find that the magazine lets you off with a private apology or you could end up with a substantial bill that you have no choice but to pay. You may end up with a bad story in the digital media that hangs around, damages your reputation and takes up loads of time. The worst case is having to recall a product because the packaging infringes copyright – it happens.

So to sum up:

  • Know the basic rules
  • Don’t use images when you don’t know their origin
  • Get permissions in writing – make a model release
  • Brief your people on from where they can and can’t take pictures
  • If in doubt, get advice.

Follow those rules and you should be alright. Of course there are still questions of the usability of the image, its appropriateness to your message, what’s a legitimate use of Photoshop (other manipulation tools are available) and what makes a good picture – but they are several different blogs!

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