Sourcing images Copyright and the public domain
Sourcing images Copyright and the public domain
Photographs, illustrations, and other images are covered by copyright law. With a few exceptions, copyright law makes it a criminal offence to use copyrighted images without the permission of the copyright holder. This article explains how to source images, many of which are free, whilst keeping on the right side of the law.
How copyright works
While copyright law differs from country to country, most countries (including all countries in Europe and the Americas) are signatories of the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.
The Berne Convention requires its signatories to treat copyrighted materials produced in other countries in the same way as copyrighted materials produced by their own citizens. This means that any content on an it’seeze website is covered by the copyright law of England and Wales, as the content is ‘published’ from our servers in Manchester.
When someone creates a ‘work’, such as a photograph, a novel, or a piece of music, copyright is automatic — there is no need to register for copyright. The copyright may belong to the author of the work, or it may belong to an organisation which contracted the author to create the work. For example, this text was written by Stephen Morley, but the copyright belongs to his employer, Spoton.net Limited.
Copyright does not last forever. Within the European Union, the copyright of a work expires 70 years after the death of its author. For example, the painting shown to the left, Wivenhoe Park, Essex, has entered the ‘public domain’ (that is, it is no longer copyrighted) as its painter, John Constable, died in 1837.
Works created by the British government (more precisely, “made by Her Majesty or by an officer or servant of the Crown in the course of his duties”) is covered by Crown Copyright, which expires 50 years after the date of publication. For example, the Ordnance Survey’s New Popular Edition maps were published in the 1950s and 1960s, so are no longer copyrighted. Scans of the maps are now freely available online at www.npemap.org.uk.
Works ineligible for copyright
Under United States law, works produced by the United States federal government (more precisely, “prepared by an officer or employee of the U.S. government as part of that person's official duties”) are not entitled to copyright, and are hence part of the public domain.
Countries in the European Union apply the ‘rule of the shorter term’, meaning that a work that is no longer copyrighted in its author’s country also enters the public domain in the European Union. As a consequence, works of the United States federal government are also part of the public domain within the EU.
Many United States government departments make their images searchable online. Unfortunately their search interfaces vary greatly in terms of ease of use. A list of these search tools is provided at:
Be aware that some of these database may also include copyrighted images; for example, NASA’s database includes some images created by the European Space Agency and other country’s space agencies, which unlike NASA’s own images are not automatically placed into the public domain.
A ‘stock image’ (also known as a stock photograph, although not all stock images are photographs) is an image that can be licensed for a price. Stock images are usually taken by professional photographers. Most design companies use stock images, in order to reduce their costs and hence offer lower prices to their customers.
it’seeze clients can choose images from our stock image database when supplying content for population. Be aware that our images are licensed only for use on websites and cannot be used in printed materials (see our Terms And Conditions for more information).
Most stock image suppliers allow their databases to be searched online, and many add ‘watermarks’ (faint overlaid text) to preview images. Be aware that using any stock image without a licence is illegal. Getty Images (one of the largest stock image suppliers) is infamous for using automated tools to find unauthorised use of its images, and then sending demands for payment to website owners, typically in the range of £500 to £1000 per image.
Open source images
‘Open source’ refers to the practice of making available a product’s source materials. The term originally referred to software — for programmers, it meant they could access an application’s source code in order to fix bugs, while for the general public it meant the software was free. Notable examples of open source software include the Firefox and Chrome web browsers.
Open source images can be reused for free, subject to some restrictions. Wikimedia Commons is the world’s largest database of open source images. Each image on Wikipedia Commons has its licence displayed. It is important to check these licences to ensure you can use an image. The most common licences are:
The ‘public domain dedication’ and Creative Commons CC0 licence
These images can be used in any way, as the author has waived all rights.
Other Creative Commons licences
These licences come in various combinations, described in detailed on the Creative Commons website. All of these licences require you to give attribution to the original author. Some of these licences prohibit commercial use of the image — unless you are a charity, you should avoid those images.
GNU Free Documentation Licence
This licence requires you to give attribution to the original author, and to distribute a list of modifications and a copy of the licence along with the licensed content. This licence was previously used by Wikipedia, but has now fallen out of favour (Wikipedia now uses a Creative Commons licence).
Fair dealing (‘fair use’) images
‘Fair dealing’ (commonly referred to as ‘fair use’, which is a similar concept in US copyright law) allows copyrighted works to be used in certain circumstances without the permission of the copyright holder. Under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, these circumstances are:
non-commercial research or private study
Criticism and review are the most common use on websites. For example, if you review a new celebrity-branded product, you could include a photograph of the product and the celebrity. Remember, however, that laws other than copyright still apply and you could not, for example, use the photograph of the celebrity to imply they endorse your website.
Producing your own images
The best way to avoid any copyright problems is to produce you own images. As well as giving you complete control over the image, using real photographs on your website can make it look more trustworthy than a rival site using generic stock images.
Nowadays a decent ‘point and shoot’ digital camera can be purchased for under £100. Digital cameras are easy to use, but it’s worth learning about composition and other artistic and photographic techniques in order to produce the best photographs. Digital photography classes are available at many adult education centres, and books such as Tom Ang’s Digital Photography Masterclass (shown to the right) can be purchased online for under £15.