Can I Use It? Know Your Copyright Laws

By MJ Ali

As a managing editor and graphic designer, I’ve seen this issue come up countless times. How do you know what you can use on your website, blog or newsletter?

It’s important to remember that copyright law has the word “law” in it. It’s not a guideline or suggestion, it’s something lawyers learn in school and enforce in practice.

Copyright laws exist for good reason: they protect the creator of an image, song, work of art, or writing from being stolen, misused, used without permission, plagiarized, and otherwise misappropriated by those of us who didn’t do all the hard work of creating and publishing that material.

A lot of people just don’t get it… or don’t want to.


In 2005, when I was a managing editor and lead graphic designer for a large non-profit, I ran into pushback all the time from my employees and even some colleagues about whether or not this image or that quote could be used in our materials. My answer was usually quite simple: show me the permissions to use and attribution requirements and we can use it. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.


A client was upset because they purchased a song but couldn’t use it in a video they created for friends and family. They felt that, if they purchased it, the app should allow them to use it in their video. The artist who created that song has the right to make a decision as to whether or not their work can be used for personal projects, or anything else. That’s their right as the creator.


This is a question of ethics. The likelihood of someone being fined or charged with copyright violation is probably pretty low, but do you really want to take the chance? More importantly, do you want to contribute to an ever-degrading ethical code?

But these violations aren’t victimless…


When I was doing a study on crowdsourcing sites, I saw an image being used to sell as a logo component and I happened to know the artist who created it. I notified him and sent him a link to the work. He protested with the crowdsourcing company, but they didn’t seem to care. Maybe they knew how difficult it is for an individual artist to file suit over violations of this nature. And unfortunately, they’d be right.


A professional photography couple who donates countless hours to free education about photography had one of their original photos used without permission in a large publication. Not only was it one of their photos, but the subject was one of the owners, who was also a professional model. Sounds like this should have been an easy win, right? Wrong. One year and 10,000 dollars later, they did get a cease and desist, but all of the merchandise with their stolen image was still out there.


A woman with a personal website posted a photo as an illustration of a type of art, and she was sued by the owner of that art and image for $4,000. She also, of course, had to take the photo down and post an apology and disclaimer on her site. She was shocked, because she wasn’t using it to make money or deceive anyone, but in this case, someone had deep enough pockets and good enough lawyers to enforce a copyright law.

It’s true that these violations aren’t life or death situations. But, they are violations.

So, which side of this — legally, ethically and morally — would you fall on?

  • Would you avoid copyright violation to minimize the possibility of being caught?
  • Would you avoid it because it breaks the law?
  • Would you avoid it because it disrespects the rights of the content creator?
  • Would you avoid it so you can set a good example and not participate in the perpetuation of copyright violations?

Are these true or false?

  1. I saw it being used on another website, so it must be okay for me to use it.
  2. If I can’t find a copyright on it, I can use it.
  3. If I credit the author, it’s fair use. Right?
  4. I’m not trying to sell it or include it in a product I’m selling, so it’s okay.
  5. I pulled it off the website of an organization I support; I’m sure they wouldn’t mind.
  6. If it’s labeled fair use or public domain, I can use it, but if it requests attribution, I definitely need to include it in a caption with links to sources when I use it.
  7. If it was published before 1925, it’s legal to use.
  8. It was posted on Pinterest with a link, so if I use the same link, it’s okay.
  9. I’m a nonprofit, so the copyright issues don’t apply to my organization.
  10. It’s just me; I’m not a company or anything. The rules don’t apply.
  11. As long as I’m not selling anything, it’s fine.
  12. I didn’t know about it, so I can’t be fined.
  13. No one’s going to sue me. They’ll just ask me to take it down.

(True statement is number 6.)

We’ve all grabbed an image to throw into chat or attach to an email, and often take that step further into our online work. When populating something online, we often grab whatever’s easiest without checking any further. After all, it takes more time and work. And a lot of people don’t know how to find images they can use in their online work.

But, ignorance of a law is not an excuse, and it doesn’t exempt you from being held accountable, so here are some resources to get you started:


When you do a Google search, you have subcategories like All, News, Videos, Images, and More.

Click on Images, and then click on Tools.

Below that, you’ll see more subcategories: Size, Color, Usage Rights, Type, and Time.

Usage Rights is the one you want to use for filtering.

Let’s say you choose “Labeled for Reuse” as your copyright filter.

Every image that comes up under that filter is free to use, right?


If you click on one of those photos, you will likely see: “Images may be subject to copyright” with “Learn more” next to it.

That’s a link. Click on it.

Google provides education on copyright law right in that link. There’s a lot of valuable information there, including how to dispute when someone has used your work without permission.

Read it. Then click on the link to the right: What is “Fair Use?”

Read that.


Now owned by a family-owned photography community site called SmugMug, flickr is actually a really good way to find content and filter searches easily to determine fair use, public domain, and other important information.

When you search, you can filter by license in the license pulldown menu. However, once again, even if you search with Commercial use & mods allowed, for instance, you may find photos with © All Rights Reserved, Some Rights Reserved, or Public Domain.

In order to apply correct attribution, click on the link in blue and follow the instructions for applying attribution if required.


Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that provides a global platform and standardization for copyright permissions. Their body of work and service to the global community is unequaled. It’s an invaluable source of images and other works, and education.

They have a wiki on best practices for attribution that is definitely worth checking out.


Viewer beware: most photo sites offering free images are usually links to stock image brokers like iStock and Dreamstime.Sites like Unsplash, populated by community members and curated by the company, are primarily fair use. However, the photographer has the ability to apply usage restrictions, so checking those before using the image is important.

Below is the most common attribution you might see when downloading an image from Unsplash. Often, it doesn’t require attribution, but it’s a nice thing to do.

There are many more resources — too many to list here — that you’ll find along the way.

Happy hunting and posting.

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