5 Misunderstandings About Photos On the Internet

There are so many misconceptions about the internet and what it means for images. Photos uploaded to the internet are at risk of ‘image theft’, plagiarism, and so much more. “You shouldn’t upload your photos to the internet then” – heard that before?

Well, this article is written for those that don’t really understand the relationship between photos and the internet. Here are the 5 biggest misunderstandings about photos online – feel free to share this widely!

1. The Internet ≠ Public Domain

Despite the internet being publicly accessible, it doesn’t mean that everything on it is in the ‘public domain’. This term is used to describe content that has been released without restriction by copyright law or other legalities. It often applies to works that have had their intellectual property rights expire, or have been forfeited on purpose. The ‘public domain’ actually has nothing to do with something being on the internet.

Photos on the internet aren't freely available. Let's bust some myths! Click to Tweet

So, just because a photo is on the net it doesn’t mean that it’s in the public domain. Far from it, actually. The majority of images on the internet are protected by copyright law, so it isn’t a case of picking and choosing which image you want to use.

Further Reading: “What Is Copyright? Understanding Your Rights

2. They’re Not Free on Google Either

Google Images is not a free stock library. There’s even a warning under every photo they display, saying that ‘Images may be subject to copyright’.

misunderstandings about photos online

There is a handy tool from Google if you want to find photos that you are allowed to use, though. Hit ‘Search Tools’ and then navigate to ‘Usage Rights’ – you can filter the results by the desired license and avoid any potential copyright infringement.

usage
Google will let you filter results by license.

3. A Photo Doesn’t Have to Have a Copyright Notice

Just because a photo isn’t watermarked, or doesn’t have the name of the photographer listed beside it, doesn’t mean it has no copyright protection. You don’t actually have to display a copyright notice online anymore, and that includes in the USA. Photos without one still have just as much protection as those that are watermarked, albeit lacking a minor deterrent.

Further Reading: “How to Watermark a Photo

4. Artists: You Can’t Just Take a Photo as a ‘Reference’

Some artists, such as illustrators or painters, will look online for reference images. There is a common misconception that you can copy a photo exactly, and that doesn’t infringe copyright at all. It’s perhaps a bit of a grey area, but doing this is actually creating a derivative work.

This is one that actually surprises a lot of artists that I am friends with. Even though you’re putting your own artistic skill into copying the photo exactly, it’s still a ‘rip off’ of the original. If you want to avoid copyright infringement, then you need to put your own creative flair into the work.

5. Giving Credit Isn’t Permission

One of the most irritating things online is when someone gives you credit, thinking that makes it ok. There are a handful of situations where this is legal, such as for education under a fair use policy. However, most of the time these ‘credited’ uses are not permitted by the photographer or law.

Some photographers may be ok with allowing you to use their photos just for credit, but you still need to ask permission first. Having said that, it is worth reading my article ‘The Problem with Giving Your Photos Away for Free‘.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will's images have won a string of awards, including the title of "Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year" in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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