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Avoiding copyright issues – how to use images in your marketing

The right images can add colour and variety to your marketing materials and content and help quickly catch the eye of your target audience.

However, most images on the internet are not free to use, and your business could be fined or need to pay a hefty licence fee if you are caught using an image without consent.

All original works – such as photography or illustrations – are copyrighted by default opens in new window.

That means you cannot use them without the consent of the person who made the image, such as the photographer opens in new window.

You may need to pay a fee to use it – this applies to most images, even ones that appear ‘freely’ available when sourcing images using a search engine such as Google.

Using downloaded images in your start-up’s marketing materials may be illegal, and if you commit copyright infringement, you or your business could be fined opens in new window.

The copyright holder may also seek payment for unauthorised use of an image – with licencing fees potentially running into hundreds or thousands of pounds.

But what exactly is copyright infringement, and how can you avoid this expensive mistake when marketing your start-up?


What is copyright infringement?

In the UK, copyright opens in new window is a legal right that protects original creative works and gives creators exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, and display them.

These works include music, literature, film, art, images, and video.

Using these works without the creator’s permission is typically considered infringement, as it violates a copyright holder’s exclusive rights.

For example, using a photograph taken from a website without proper licensing can be copyright infringement.

In the UK, copyright protection for artistic works (such as photographs, paintings or drawings) belongs to the creator from the date the work was created until 70 years after their death opens in new window.

It is an automatic right – the creator doesn’t need to register the work, only prove that they created the original when pursuing a copyright claim.

After 70 years, the work enters the ‘public domain’ and can be used freely.

However, it’s crucial to check the specific laws that apply to the work you’d like to use when dealing with potentially copyrighted content – or seek legal advice opens in new window if you’re unsure – as the penalties can be severe.

There is no defence if you’re found using an image without permission, and claiming it was freely available online won’t prevent a successful infringement claim and subsequent infringement costs.

Read our complete guide on what copyright means opens in new window.


Image copyright terms you need to know

As a start-up owner, there are a few copyright terms that can help you navigate this potentially challenging aspect of marketing opens in new window.

It’s essential that you are clear on the terms of use for any image you plan to use, as each category can have restrictions.


‘Free’ images

Some websites allow the download of ‘free’ images.

These pictures may be used without paying a fee, but there may still be usage restrictions or a requirement to credit the original creator.

Always check image usage terms carefully – even with ‘free’ images – and ensure the website has permission to provide them.

If in doubt, avoid using ‘free’ images and only use images you can license, such as from a stock library.


Creative Commons images

These are images released under the Creative Commons opens in new window license, which allows creators to specify varying levels of usage permissions for their work.

This allows use under specific conditions, such as limiting the use of the image to non-commercial purposes and attributing the creator, so check to ensure you’re clear on usage.

Not all Creative Commons licenses are the same.

Some may permit commercial usage, while others do not.


Royalty-free stock images

These are typically images that can be used multiple times without paying additional fees once a licence to use them has been purchased.

However, the license may still contain certain restrictions, such as limitations on using the image for resale products.


Rights-managed stock images

These are images licensed for a specific use, with the fee often based on factors like usage duration, geographic location, and the specific media in which the image will appear.


Fair dealing

This means that in certain specific scenarios, such as research and private study, criticism, review, and news reporting, limited use of an artistic work can potentially be allowable without permission from the copyright owner.

In this category, the use of ‘fair’ depends on several factors.

Additionally, the concept of fair dealing in UK copyright law typically does not permit using copyrighted materials, including images, for commercial or marketing purposes without permission.


Public domain

Works in the public domain may not be protected by copyright, so they could potentially be used without permission from the creator – however, there are common misconceptions around this term, and it doesn’t mean that the images can be used in any way you want.

For instance, even if the original image is in the public domain, if you download a digital copy from somewhere, that copy may have copyright protection.

Also, what qualifies as ‘public domain’ can vary between locations – an image considered in the public domain in one country may still be under copyright in another.

Even if an image is in the public domain, other rights, such as trademarks opens in new window or rights of privacy and publicity, might still limit its use.


How can I tell if an image is copyrighted?

It can be challenging to tell whether an image is copyright protected – copyright is automatic and doesn’t require a copyright symbol.

The absence of copyright information doesn’t mean the image isn’t copyrighted.

A good rule of thumb is to assume an image is copyrighted, and you cannot use it with expressed permission unless clearly otherwise stated.

If you found the image on the website, check the terms and conditions of use.

If the image has a watermark (a symbol or image added to the image), a copyright mark (©) or the word ‘copyright’ followed by a name or date, it’s very likely to be copyrighted.

Check the image’s metadata, which might include information about its rights and properties and specifics about the image, its creator, copyright holder, and usage rights.

Try using Google’s reverse image search to identify if and where the image is used elsewhere.

This involves dropping a copy of the image into Google image search and seeing where it is being used, such as by a royalty-free stock library.

You can then contact the copyright holder, such as the stock library, and arrange to pay a licence fee to use the image legally.

Remember, none of these methods are fool proof – if in doubt, seek legal advice or use a different image that is clearly labelled as being able to be used in the way you want to use it.

Copyrighted works where the owner can’t be traced (‘orphan works opens in new window’) have specific rules about how these can be used, and you may be able to apply for a license from the Intellectual Property Office.


Can I manipulate a photo and then use it?

Manipulating and using a copyrighted photo without permission is against copyright law, even if the image has been considerably edited.

This is because the copyright owner holds exclusive rights to create derivative works based on the original.

Some image libraries have sophisticated software that can track the use of their images across the internet, even if the images have been edited or altered significantly.

There may be exceptions, but this is a complex area.

If you plan to use a copyrighted image, you must get permission or licenses from the copyright owner.


How to avoid copyright infringement

You can source images for marketing materials without committing copyright infringement in a few ways – as long as you abide by legal restrictions.


Take your own original photos

This is the most effective way to avoid image copyright issues, as by creating your own images, you own the copyright, meaning you have control over how they are used and distributed in your marketing materials.

However, remember that certain photos are still restricted even if you have taken them yourself – for instance, if you take a photo of a work protected by copyright (such as a painting or poster), your photo could be an infringement of this.


Hire a photographer and agree copyright of the images

If you commission photographs to be taken by someone else, the copyright remains with the photographer unless explicitly transferred in writing.

So, you will need a written and signed contract with the photographer saying the copyright is yours.

Alternatively, you could pay to license the images for a specific purpose, such as use on a company website and social media channels.


Check free image websites

Online platforms, such as Unsplash opens in new window, Pexels opens in new window and Pixabay opens in new window, can provide high-quality, royalty-free images – however, it’s essential to check the licensing agreement for each website and image before use, as some may still require attribution.

As with all images, assume each is protected by copyright and that you need explicit permission to use it.


Buy stock images

Stock image websites like Shutterstock opens in new window, Adobe Stock opens in new window, and Getty Images opens in new window offer extensive libraries of images that you can use for a fee, depending on how you use the images.

Check the specific licensing information for each website, image, and use.

Always record any licencing agreements and invoices to prove you legally used an image under licence.


Get permission

If you’ve found an image that you’d like to use but it’s not covered under a license allowing your intended use, you could contact the copyright owner directly and ask for written permission.

They might agree to let you use it for free, for a fee, or in exchange for credit.

This usually means including the creator’s name and the image’s source and could also involve linking back to the source where you got the image.

Remember, it’s always wise to seek legal advice for specific situations.

Copyright law can be complex, and the specifics can vary depending on numerous factors.


Learn with Start Up Loans and help get your business off the ground

Thinking of starting a business? Check out our free online courses in partnership with the Open University on being an entrepreneur.

Our free  Learn with Start Up Loans courses opens in new window include:

Plus free courses on finance and accounting, project management, and leadership.


Reference to any organisation, business and event on this page does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation from the British Business Bank or the UK Government. Whilst we make reasonable efforts to keep the information on this page up to date, we do not guarantee or warrant (implied or otherwise) that it is current, accurate or complete. The information is intended for general information purposes only and does not take into account your personal situation, nor does it constitute legal, financial, tax or other professional advice. You should always consider whether the information is applicable to your particular circumstances and, where appropriate, seek professional or specialist advice or support.

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