5 Ways to Tell if an Image Is Copyrighted

Here’s how to avoid getting sued for copyright infringement: assume every photo has a copyright, and get into the habit of asking permission.

Trust us, you really don’t want to get busted for copyright infringement. If you reproduce or distribute someone’s work without their permission, you could face fines of $750 to $30,000 per work (and that’s being generous – courts could penalize you up to $150,000 per work).

EverSpark is all about pushing boundaries, just not those involving other people’s work. Keep reading to learn how to legally use copyrighted images.

1. Look for a watermark.

A watermark is a logo or signature that’s superimposed on an image to protect the work from illegal use or distribution.

Watermarked photos indicate copyright, and you can get in some real trouble for tampering with or removing the mark altogether.

Often, the semi-transparent watermark will include the name of the business or person to whom the image belongs, so there’s no excuse for you to not give credit where credit is due.

how to tell if an image is copyrighted watermark
Wow, who are those beautiful people? Thanks, Lata Dhanjani-Shaikh of LDS Photography for the fun group photos!

Under no circumstances should you remove a watermark using Photoshop or other photo-editing software.

If the photographer or creator sues you for copyright infringement, the altered image can be used against you in court as evidence. It’s proof that you clearly and willfully violated the image copyright.

The penalties aren’t worth it. When you want to use an image with a watermark, take five minutes to contact the creator and ask for permission. Most artists are more than happy to share their creations as long as you give them due credit.

Remember, there’s nothing worse than an angry artist who knows you stole their work.

2. Look for a photo credit in the caption.

Captions are used to lend context to images, not just duplicate in words what the user already sees. They take less than a minute to write, which makes them a popular bulwark against image theft.

how to tell if an image is copyrighted caption
This photo, taken from an article by Greenville News has a clear, prominent caption complete with photo credit.

If you find an image on a website that you want to use, look closely for a caption. Nine times out of ten, if a caption is present, so is the photo credit.

Look for the words “Credit” or “Photo Courtesy” followed by the name of the photographer or institution that provided the image.

Once you have the name of the photographer, search for them online and contact their work number to ask if you can use the photo.

TV stations often give photo credit through their callsign. In the image below, the writer includes the station’s callsign (KTVI-TV) instead of the specific photographer’s name in the photo credit. If you want to use a photo from a TV station, you would need to reach out to the station itself for permission.

how to tell if an image is copyrighted callsign
Notice the station callsign in the parentheses.

3. Check the metadata.

Some artists embed details of their image alongside the image file. This information is known as metadata, and it helps Google and other search engines recognize what the image is and why it’s relevant to the rest of the content on the page.

Photo metadata often includes descriptive information about the image, such as a headline and keywords, but it can also include rights and copyright information.

Do a quick sweep of the image’s metadata and you may find the creator’s name, credits, and property rights, after which you’ll need to contact them about licensing rights.

Here’s how to access metadata on Windows and macOS:

  • Windows: Right-click on the image file and select “Properties.” The popup window will display basic information of the image (type of file, size, etc.) Click “Details” for more in-depth data.
  • macOS: Open image in Preview, click “Tools,” click “Show Inspector,” then click the ⓘ icon. Click the “EXIF” tab for the owner’s name and copyright notice.

4. Use Google’s reverse image search.

Reverse image search is useful if you tried the above methods to no avail, if you don’t have the time to sort through metadata and image captions, or if you’re not the most Internet savvy.

how to know if an image is copyrighted reverse image search
This is the image we’ll put in Google Reverse Image Search. Go Braves!

Here’s how to use reverse image search to find if an image is copyrighted:

  1. Open Google Image Search
  2. Click on the camera icon

how to reverse image search

3. Insert the image URL and click “Search by image” or upload the image from your files

how to reverse image search step 2

From here, you should find ownership and copyright information. By now, you should know what comes next – contact the creator and ask for permission to use their photo with credit.

Search the U.S. Copyright Database.

You can search the government’s huge online database to find official copyright information of the image you want to use. You’ll need to know either the name of the photographer or the title of the image.

Navigate to the Copyright Database’s Public Catalog and enter the information in the search box. If the creator took the extra step and registered their work with the Copyright Office, you’ll see the record here.

It’s important to remember that an image can still be copyrighted even if it isn’t listed in the Public Catalog. The image may not be registered but can still have an image license limiting use since images are technically protected by copyright from the moment of creation.

Here’s When You Don’t Need Permission

You don’t need permission from the creator or copyright owner to use their image in these very specific circumstances:

Click on the links above to learn more about these specific provisions.

What do I do if the owner doesn’t respond?

Let’s say you found the perfect image for your article. It’s exactly what you need and you haven’t seen anything else like it. You just have to use it in your piece, so you find the creator’s contact information and reach out to them for permission.

You’ve exhausted all of the above avenues, you’ve contacted the photographer and their employer, but you get no response. Don’t give up just yet – you may still be able to use the image under the fair use doctrine.

Regardless of the copyright owner’s response (or lack of response), you can still use the work under the doctrine of fair use if you’re using the image for:

As you can probably imagine, the boundaries of fair use are often hazy and difficult to define.

Even if you’re familiar with the doctrine, you should read up on this article published by the Digital Media Law Project. It’s a great free resource that can help you stay out of copyright trouble.

Are stock images copyrighted?

Technically, all photographs are copyrighted from the moment they’re created. So yes, stock images are copyrighted just like your neighborhood wedding photographer’s are.

The difference is that having a stock photo account gives you much more freedom with the number of photos you can use, and the effort you put into obtaining permission.

Most photos on a platform like iStock don’t require any effort on your part because by purchasing an account, you contribute to paying the creator’s royalties.

Generally, stock photo accounts are purchased on a monthly or yearly basis, and you can download and re-download a given photo as many times as you want, because you only have to pay for each image once.

Another reason why these photos are so popular is that you don’t have to give attribution to the creator or the stock photo company.

Click here to review iStock’s license agreement, and here for Shutterstock’s agreement to make sure you’re using their photos correctly.

Afraid you’ll slip up? Let EverSpark handle it.

Worrying about copyright law is yet another layer to creating helpful content that boosts your business’s online rank.

If you’re still not sure how to legally use copyrighted images (and don’t have time to spare), choose a content marketing agency with above-board image sharing practices. Contact EverSpark today to start.

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