Science Communication Focus: Keeping your image use ethical and legal

Nobody likes to be robbed, and generally we don’t like the idea of other people being robbed either. But there is a group of people who, when robbed, we ignore their plight.

Who is this group?

The photographers, the graphic designers, the writers, the artists, the creative creators. Every day, people take their work off one website and put it on their own. They are stealing content - and for the most part they don’t even consider they are doing it.

After receiving a number of requests to write for Ocean Oculus’ News from the Sea, I decided to start accepting guest contributions. After all, there are more stories, more science, more perspectives, more ideas that I could ever possibly tell, and more voices to hear from than just my own. I whipped up some guest post guidelines - which includes instructions on image use. In essence, the instructions encourage contributors to use images - but make sure have have permission to use them, and make sure they attribute/credit the image creator.

Alongside suggesting very off-topic stories (sorry, I only cover corsets if they are loriciferans), one of the biggest problems I have had with submissions is image use. From using copyrighted images taken straight from the web, to images without attribution, it seems that many people simply aren’t aware that what they are doing is wrong - ethically or legally. Though not in every case - such as the one where I had someone submit some images and tell me that they had taken them when they were clearly screenshots from a certain well-known documentary on the ocean…

Common misconceptions

So copyright laws do vary from one country to the next, but there are some general principles:

  • An image creator does not have to expressly state that their work is copyrighted. As soon as they create it, it is.

  • Just because an image appears in Google Images, Bing Images, or any other search engine, doesn’t mean it is free to use however you want.

  • Even if you used an image without realising it was copyrighted and without permission, it is still illegal.

  • Crediting the image creator is not enough - you still need permission from the creator.

  • Even if your site is in no way commercial, you still need permission from the creator.

Oh and in case you are considering shirking off your moral and legal responsibilities because you think it doesn’t matter, or that it doesn’t impact you, just be aware than image creators can - and will - take you to court over image use without permission.

If you are like me and not a very good image creator, or can’t create the kind of image you need, the good news is that there are still plenty of options for using images that others have created.

Purchase image rights from stock image websites

Image creators can upload their work onto stock image websites where licences for use can be sold. Normally, the image creator retains copyright to their work, but the purchaser is legally allowed to use the image - as long as that use is in the terms of the licence. Prices can vary from one image to the next, and on what you want to use the image for. Stock images are typically available immediately after payment, and are cheaper and faster than getting a creator to make something for you from scratch. Examples of stock image websites include:

For more information on stock images, I highly recommend Amos Struck’s overview on Stock Photo Secrets.

Image Credit:  rawpixel  ( Unsplash Licence )

Image Credit: rawpixel (Unsplash Licence)

Use creative commons/public domain/copyright restriction free images… for free

For a variety of different reasons, image creators may have chosen to allow you to use your work for free - or may simply be free of copyright because, for example, of it’s age. The two most common licences for these types of images are Creative Commons and Public Domain images, but there are others such as Unsplash’s Licence. Even though these images are free to use, there may be some restrictions on how you can use them so be sure to check the details of the licences. For example, an image creator can set a Creative Commons licence with a restriction on commercial use. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever use the image for commercial purposes - you just need to get permission rights directly from the creator. Examples of sites to find these types of images include:

Obtain image rights directly from the image creator

If you have seen a great image that you want to use, there is nothing stopping you from finding the creator’s contact details and asking them if you can use the images. Explain which image you want to use, why, and how and see what they say. They may say no , they may say yes and set a licence and fee for the use. They may even say yes and allow you to use the image for free under certain conditions. Whatever happens, make sure you abide by the terms you agree to (or if they say no, don’t just use the image anyway). Oh and if you can’t find who created the image - or get in contact with them, you still can’t use it.

Of course, you can also go to an artist and ask them to create an image or a series of images for you that matches your needs.

Crediting/attributing image creators

Whether you purchase the image from a stock site, get permission direct from the creator, or use a creative commons licenced piece, it is likely that the creator needs to be attributed (and they should be too). Different licences have different requirements so make sure you review what these are and follow the instructions. Even though some of licences do not require you to attribute the image creator (such as the Unsplash licence), I think it would be nice if you did anyway.

Where you don’t have explicit instruction, I recommend using the ‘best practices for attribution’ from the folks at Creative Commons when possible. They suggest that attributions go something like this:

Title? “Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco”

Author? “tvol” – linked to his profile page

Source? “Creative Commons 10th Birthday Celebration San Francisco” – linked to original Flickr page

License? “CC BY 2.0” – linked to license deed

This example and text came directly from the Creative Commons web-page ‘How to give attribution’. I can use it here because they have kindly given it a CC BY 4.0 licence. If I were to modify the image, or create an images containing multiple images from different sources, or if the image doesn’t have a title, I’d change this attribution slightly.