Using images online without permission

FBC Manby Bowdler

In the digital age we live in when around 2.5 billion people worldwide use social networks, it’s tempting – and easy - to cut and paste information and images from the internet for your own purposes.

But if you do, it could land you in big trouble! Partner and IP specialist Stuart Rea has this advice:

If Facebook and other social media platforms appear to have a cart-blanche ‘we can use your images’ policy then why can’t you do the same and use other people’s images without asking for permission first?  After all, it’s better to apologise later than ask first, right?

Wrong. Using images online without permission isn’t as prevalent as you might think, purely because the law offers image owners substantial protection against theft, unauthorised use, or copyright infringement.

The world of copyright doesn’t just cover the written word, but visual images too, from photographs to drawings, digital designs and even video content. As long as you can prove the image belongs to you, nobody has the right to use it without your expressed permission.

A Copyright Notice – find out more about copyrighted images

Copyright notices are distributed by the UK’s Intellectual Property Office. They’re to help small businesses and individuals understand the protection they have under the UK’s current copyright legislation, which admittedly, is incredibly complicated.

It’s specifically for people who want to use digital or photographic images on the internet, and has been designed to try and keep pace with the rapidly changing online world. It’s not legal advice, but general guidelines to help you understand what your rights are. You can download the full pdf file here.

The basics – what you need to know

If you want to use photographs, images or illustrations then you’ll find they are generally protected by copyright, unless they expressly state that the image is copyright-free. If it is then you can use it as you wish, or within certain restrictions.

However, in the majority of cases you either have to pay for a licence to use an image, or ask the owner’s permission. The creator of the image is the person who owns the copyright on it. Don’t assume that just because there is no copyright symbol on an image that it’s copyright-free. It’s not a requirement to mark all copyrighted images with the © symbol.

You may find that an image has more than one copyright owner, so again, don’t assume that just because you have permission from one copyright holder, that you immediately have the right to use the image. You may need to seek permission from the other copyright holders too.

Picture libraries

Many photos and images you’ll see on the internet belong to photo or stock libraries. These either own the copyright of a picture directly, or offer it for use via a licencing agreement with the creator of the image.

You’ll find that how you use a photo-stock image is often limited under the terms and conditions of the library’s agreement policy, as well as being a copyrighted image. These are not part of copyright law, but infringing them may mean that the library removes the image from your site, or starts legal proceedings for breach of contract.

Out-of-copyright images

Copyright on images usually lasts for the lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years after their death. However, just because a picture is old does not mean it is out of copyright and can be freely used. Copyright for particular images may pass to the creator’s estate, or may be covered in other legislation.

I don’t know who owns the image – how do I get permission to use it?

Again, don’t assume that just because you can’t find out who owns an image that you can then use it online with impunity. If it’s a modern image then there’s a good chance that someone, somewhere, will recognise the image and inform the original creator.

If you’ve done everything you can to find the owner of an image and are still having no luck, then you can apply for an orphan works licence from the IPO. This licence lets people use orphan copyright images for both commercial and non-commercial purposes under a licence agreement.

With billions of digital images now floating around the internet, it’s tempting to assume that ‘borrowing’ someone else’s image for your own tiny website will go unnoticed and won’t be a problem. However, remember that image has been created by someone, and is therefore their property. At the end of the day it’s their decision who uses it, and how.

At best, a breach of copyright by using someone else’s image without their permission will result in a request that you credit the original creator, or take the image down. At worst, you could end up in court facing a costly legal battle over copyright misuse.

If you find yourself in that position, or if someone has used your image without your permission, then talk to a solicitor specialising in copyright law.  

*Stuart heads up our Corporate team in Shropshire and is also head of our Intellectual Property, Technology and Media Law group advising on a range of IP, IT and media matters. He can be contacted on 01743 284159 or