The Importance of Gaining a License for Using Images

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IPU491101: Operation Crossbow actress Sylvia Syms (right) portrays Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith (left), the wartime photographic interpreter who was the first person to spot the V1 flying rocket bomb on an aerial photograph of Peenemunde. London, UK, 6 January 1965

Images: we see hundreds of them every day without blinking an eye, and yet most people don’t bother to think about how they got there. For content creators and curators, gathering and using images takes up a large chunk of time.

Why is it so time-consuming? Using images is not as simple as copying and pasting. Most of the time, it requires obtaining an image license.

If you’re in a time crunch, or you’re confused about the process, it can be tempting to go ahead and use a picture without the proper licensing. Below, we’ll explain why that’s a bad idea, and we’ll also give you a simple outline for how to obtain the right image permissions.

Why Is It So Important to Secure Image Licensing?

Securing the license to use an image should be very important to you. As a creative or curator, art is valuable to you. You should value the original creators and owners as well. Here are some reasons you should think twice about using an image without permission.

Poor Ethics

Original owners are the only reason you have access to the images in the first place, so you should return the favour by giving them the credit they deserve. It is unethical to use an image without permission because this is a form of stealing art and intellectual property. If you wouldn’t take a painting off the wall of a museum, you shouldn’t copy and paste an image from the internet into your article without asking for permission.

Legal Ramifications

Images, no matter where they are or how they were created, are automatically protected under federal copyright laws. The owner of an image has full rights to the image and chooses if they wish to make it available to others.

Posting these images on the internet does not invalidate this ownership, just as showcasing art in a gallery does not mean you’re giving it away for free.

There are serious ramifications for not abiding by copyright and licensing laws. Copyright law is serious and upheld by the police and trading standards officers. As a result, it is very expensive and damaging.

There are several legal penalties for this felony, including:

  • Compensating the owner for damages and loss of profit
  • Unlimited fines
  • Jail time at a maximum of 10 years

At the very least, breaking the terms of a licensing contract can send you to civil court. Owners can sue you for using their images without permission or breaking the rules of the license.

You may have to cover the cost of attorneys and court for both parties in civil cases and forfeit any rights previously owned regarding the images. All works using the images illegally are subject to a cease order.

Damages Your Reputation

Beyond doing what’s ethical and legal, using images without permission can damage your reputation. Give your audience more credit: if you are publishing images without permission or attribution, they can easily find out.

If your audience sees that you aren’t giving proper credit to owners of images and you’re too lazy to secure proper licensing, they’ll lose respect for you. Word will get out fast, and any hopes you had for growing an audience and securing partnerships will be gone.

Do it right the first time and from then on, no exceptions.

When Is It Okay to Use Images?

First of all, don’t be intimidated. Most of the time, if you’ve found an image you want to use, the owner will be happy to have their image shown to a wider audience. On the other hand, you should never assume that.

The owner of an image automatically has copyright for that image. Whether the image becomes available for use by others completely depends on what they choose to do with the image. They can choose to license the image or make it available for free, usually with some stipulations.

There are a few options for using images without having to obtain licensing:

  • Taking your own pictures
  • Using online search engines specifically made for free-to-use images
  • Checking public domain
  • Claiming fair use

While these options may not require licensing, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have to take some other measures. You must be certain of the requirements for using an image at all costs. Otherwise, you could get into legal trouble and ruin your reputation. And quality of the image, including size and caption information, is an important consideration for you.

What Is Fair Use?

Also known as “fair dealing,” “fair use” refers to the educational or non-profit use of an image to illustrate a point. A good example is Wikipedia, which often uses images from the internet as a helpful tool for educating readers on certain topics.

You must be very sure that you qualify for fair use before you claim it. You cannot profit from the use of the picture.

Creative Commons Licensing

There is also the option to use pictures with Creative Commons licensing. There are a few subsections of this type of licensing that allows people to use images without obtaining the full image copyright.

The copyright holder of an image can choose to offer their work to others through Creative Commons licensing. This type of license allows for others to use the image without obtaining the full copyright, but the users must follow certain rules.

There are 6 different types of Creative Commons licenses:

  1. Attribution: do anything you want with the image as long as you credit the original owner
  2. Attribution-ShareAlike: do anything you want with the image as long as you credit the original owner and get your own identical licensing
  3. Attribution-NoDerivs: any manipulations you do of the original work cannot be shared with others, and you must give credit to the original owner
  4. Attribution-NonCommercial: do anything you want with the image noncommercially, but you must give credit to the original owner
  5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike: do anything you want with the image noncommercially, but you must give credit to the original owner and get identical licensing
  6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs: as the most restrictive license, you cannot manipulate the image or use it commercially and you must give credit to the original owner

As you can see, attribution is always a stipulation to using images online and offline. Giving credit to the original owner is a “moral right.” If for some reason you don’t want to credit the owner, you must get permission.

Obtaining an Image License

If you need to obtain a license to use an image, you’ll have to follow a specific process to avoid legal and ethical troubles. Owners who choose to make a living from their images will enter into licensing agreements with those who wish to use the images.

These licensing agreements will outline usage rights and royalties. These guidelines will be similar to the Creative Commons license, except you’ll have to pay a licensing fee.

What Are Image Usage Rights?

Image usage rights refer to the rights you have to use an image during your contracted agreement with the owner. Sometimes, owners will choose to offer “freedom of contract,” which gives the user free rein to use the image however they’d like.

On the other hand, there are usually some stipulations. Image licensing can get very detailed, so it’s important to be clear about every section of the contract to make sure you stay within your rights while using the image.

Exclusive vs. Nonexclusive

There are non-exclusive rights and exclusive rights. Non-exclusive rights give the user a predefined outline of how they’re allowed to use the image but do not stop the owner from giving other parties the right to use the image as well.

Exclusive rights contracts give the user rights to use the image and stop the owner from giving rights to anyone else. It might even stop the owner from using it as well. If you get exclusive rights, you can then sue for copyright if other people use the image.


Another part of this agreement is duration, which identifies how long the contract is valid before full rights are granted back to the owner. The duration of use might be unlimited, but owners can choose to set a time for the contract.

Types of Use

Two aspects make up the types of use section of the contract. The owner will define how the licensee can use the image both technically and for what purpose.

Technically, the owner can define how the licensee can use the image such as whether the user has the right to scan, copy, or print the image. The owner can also decide if the licensee can publish the image online or offline.

When it comes to purpose, the image rights will define whether the licensee can use the image privately or commercially. If you’re looking to use the image for marketing or publishing, for example, you’ll have to obtain commercial rights.

Spatial Modalities

The owner of the image can also set geographical limits, such as whether the image can only be used within the confines of the United States. If you plan on using the image online, this can be very tricky since the Internet is available across the globe and limiting access is difficult.

Do You Have to Credit the Owner?

Part of the license’s usage rights will be how the image is credited. Owners will often include an author designation section in which they contractually determine if their name must be used in conjunction with the picture.

One of the most common mistakes of image licensing is that licensees assume they don’t need to give credit or source the image once they obtain the license. If there is no section for this in the contract, the automatic agreement is that the name of the owner will be named immediately on the image.

If there is a section, it is often to outline exactly how the owner should be named, such as whether to use a full name, pseudonym, abbreviation, or something else entirely. Other times, it might say that the user has the freedom to decide how to name the owner.

Can You Edit the Image After You Obtain a License?

The owner can also include the right to edit in the licensing agreement, but you should never assume it’s okay to edit the image in any way unless it is agreed upon. This section can be very simple or very extensive depending on how limited the rights are.

In some cases, you might only have the right to change the size and colour of the image to make it fit into your work. In other cases, the author can give a much wider range to redesign the image. Owners might also choose to create a list of revisions that are allowed.

How to Source Licensed Images

Once you’ve got the license to use an image, you’ll need to make sure you source the licensed image correctly at each use. Owner attribution is extremely important when using another’s image, and it is very obvious when the user has not done so.

There are a few aspects to a thorough image citation or attribution:

  • Image title
  • Author name
  • If used online, link to the original or the author’s site
  • If used in print, include information about the source
  • If the image has a Creative Commons license, include a link to the specific license
  • Copyright information, including watermarks

How thorough and immediate all this information is required to be offered should be included in the licensing contract. For example, you might not have room for all of this information in the space where you use the image, but it should be easy to find. In textbooks, for instance, you should include the most important information by the picture and include the rest in the citations section of the book.

Give Credit Where It’s Due

Understanding image license rules are part of a larger scheme of appreciating art and creators. Giving proper attribution and following the wishes of the creator is a moral and legal responsibility. Staying ignorant of these rules is not an option and can leave you in serious trouble.

At TopFoto, we make it easy to find the images you need and give proper credit to the owners. Connecting creatives with those who appreciate their art is our pride and joy.

Get started now by clicking through our curated selection of photos!


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