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Friday, June 30, 2017

A picture paints a thousand … dollars


The 13th Sign copyrighted Publisher logo
As writers, we want images for our book covers, blogs, adverts and tweets. It is so easy to break the law if I find the perfect picture online. All I have to do is right-click, save it and use it. Simple! As simple as picking up sweets in a shop and pocketing them. You probably wouldn’t do the latter because a) it’s stealing and b) if you get caught, you don’t just pay the price of the sweets. The same applies to using images without permission and there are some horror stories doing the rounds about the price of being caught.

I’m a writer and a photographer, with a stock portfolio of 3,500 photos at istockphoto and Getty Images. When you buy a stock image, you pay for a license to use it and have the security of knowing you are not breaking any laws. The photographer remains the copyright holder and can earn a living through multiple small sales. If you use any photo without payment (if required) or permission, you are stealing from the photographer.

You would be surprised at which photos sell best. How much do you think each of these photos has earned for me?


Untidy Wardrobe istockphoto file link



The untidy wardrobe has earned $400 and the swamp hag, which involved a gutsy paid model, complicated lighting and a unique (!) location - $20. The wardrobe photo is successful and the swamp hag is not (though of course I love it). If somebody saw the wardrobe and thought, ‘That’s just an ordinary photo; why shouldn’t I use it – and I’ll pay if I get caught,’ I’d lose my income.
All this is a bit heavy when all you want is a little picture for your blog?

You have three legal options. 

1) You could use a photo that is ‘free to use without restriction’ often stated to be ‘under creative commons license’. Here are two of the many sites that offer photos free, even for commercial use.

Pixabay is a gateway to shutterstock and many of the paid stock libraries offer freebies as a taster. Help yourself!
The New York Library is also one of many sites offering free photos. Be careful. Some ‘free sites’ steal photos. You could be in trouble if you use images these sites should not be offering.

A creative commons license does NOT automatically mean that you can do anything you like with a photo. You need to read the terms of each photo, which might limit the use or require credit in a given manner.

2) You can pay for Royalty Free stock photos. Royalty Free does NOT mean free. It means you can use the photo in advertising (e.g. book jackets) and combine it with other images in any way you want. You can Photoshop it to death. Check the license use if you have a bestselling print run – you might need an extended license (usually at about 500,000 copies).

Credit your source where possible and, if you can, the photographer by name. These are your creative colleagues and, if you use one of my photos, let me know and I will publicise the fact! Photographers are your marketing friends!

3) The third option is to use your own (or a friend’s) photos. You avoid all the legal problems that way, right? Wrong. 

Photos that are fine for personal use might be illegal if used commercially and it is your responsibility as photographer (and publisher) to obey the law. Your human subjects have rights so you should have permission from them before using their photo as e.g. a book jacket. Some buildings are copyright protected so you could be sued for using a photo of e.g. the Eiffel Tower at night, without permission.

I mentioned ‘Royalty Free’ photos. Every human subject in my photos has signed a Model Release permitting sale of their photos. There are no brand names, logos or copyright places. As a photographer, you could be sued over any of these issues.

The exception is when you use or sell your photos as ‘Editorial’. This is photo-journalism; travel, news or street photography where you do not always have model permission. Editorial photos can only be used in a reporting context and cannot be changed (i.e. Photoshopped or cropped in a way that changes the context). Laws vary by country but, for instance, even for Editorial, my companies do not allow photos of one child unless model released; several children or a child with at least one adult are acceptable.

If these were your photos, which of these could you legally use for a book cover?


Lyon Old Quarter istockphoto file link






Collioure Harbour istockphoto file link



Answer: all of them require Model Releases or can only be sold for Editorial use. This means that you could use them for a non-fiction (e.g. travel) book but if anybody can be recognised, it’s always safer to have permission from the subject. Number 2 (man hiking) does have a Model Release so is for sale Royalty Free. 

Because we photographers are lovely people, this photo (Romance in Paris) is a gift to you from me, free to use without restriction. Credit is always appreciated and if you let me know of any use, I will publicise that – I love seeing my photos ‘in the wild.’ Incidentally, photographers still own copyright to a photo even if there is no name or watermark on it, or embedded identifying data. Those are mere reminders to viewers that the photo is copyright – they don’t change its status.


If you’re not sure it’s OK then it probably isn’t, so unless you’re willing to go to court, don’t take risks. The main rule is to respect others’ copyright as much as your own and to appreciate that a photographer’s subjects (human and property) have rights too. Only use photos you have permission to use, in the way that you are using them.

I am NOT a lawyer so the opinions given here are based on my experience as a photographer, author and publisher.

You can see my stock portfolio here 

You can see my fine art photo galleries here

First published in 2016 in ALLLi's Self-Publishing Advice Centre