Copyright: do we really know our rights?

By Rebecca Swift

The majority of UK internet users know the rules when it comes to downloading music and video content. High profile cases, starting with the closure of Napster at the turn of the century and including the lawsuit by Hollywood studios against film piracy last year, have meant consumers understand issues of copyright. So why is it becoming even more apparent that the general public, marketers and even to some extent media owners do not fully understand image copyright?

The increasing ownership of smartphones and tablets, the rise of social networks and advancements such as 4G have given consumers and businesses alike the freedom and flexibility to share and source images at the touch of a button. In minutes, users can now take a photo and upload it straight to their social network profiles for all to see. Equally, it is now all too easy to post an image on the internet for which you do not own any form of copyright and reproduce it in digital form many times, without consent.

One of the more common misconceptions about visual content copyright is a tendency to believe that if a photo is published online, it is free to use. However, no matter where they are posted, images remain bound by copyright. It is exactly the same rule that applies to music: if you want to use a Beatles track to promote your business, you need to have permission to do so. Finding the track online does not automatically give you the right to use it commercially and the same goes for images and video. Users must obtain the consent of either the author of the image, or – when the license agreement of the social network allows it – the administrator of the website.

The London helicopter crash in January highlighted these copyright issues, as major media outlets used photos taken straight from Twitter on their front pages and websites. Although the Evening Standard – the first outlet to use the image in print – admitted it had taken the photo from Twitter, and that it would reimburse the owner, technically it broke the law. Although the images were in the public domain, and under Twitter’s terms of service they can be used by Twitter, it was not legal for anyone other than the owner to use them.

Users must also make sure that they have the correct licenses for images. For example, Apple was recently sued by a Swiss photographer for using an image commercially – i.e. for purposes that were not previously agreed. Rights-managed images typically hold restrictions on duration of use, geographic location or industry, but by buying royalty free images from sites such as, small businesses and marketers can be sure that they are not breaching copyright. For more information and to unravel the complexities of image rights, sites such as can be useful.

Copyright law is there to protect a photographer’s images and to prevent others taking the credit for their hard work. The photography industry is now stepping up its right to salvage the situation and claim their rights, and it is important that small businesses and marketers have the right information on how to access content that is affordable, helping them avoid the pitfalls of image copyright.

About the author

Rebecca Swift is head of creative planning at iStockphoto.

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