How Not to Infringe Copyright: Guide to Using Photos on Social Media

In the world of massive reproduction and circulation of creative works, Copyright Law is shrouded with myths and a cloud of misinformation. If you’re active on social media or running a social media campaign for a brand, knowing when and how to use an image is important to avoid being involved in a lawsuit.

In this guide, we chunked the complex and rather delicate subject of copyright to demystify this law and enlighten you. Here, you will also find a guide to using photos without infringing copyright.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of legal protection extended to the creator or author of specific rights to an original work. It is a form of Intellectual property that may vary based on a country's law. This implies, that there’s no international copyright law. It is a domestic law covering only a particular territory. 
Copyright does not deny or prevent the proliferation and growth of creative works. In the contrary it promotes the creation of more works. Individuals are encouraged to author creative works because copyright laws ensure that they are secured of its concomitant economic and moral benefits (such as being cited or recognized).

When does copyright protection begin and end?

When does copyright protection begin and end?

Copyright is an automatic protection, meaning the author does not need to register his work in order enjoy this this legal protection. Copyright protection starts when the creative, scientific or literary work is laid or put on a medium, such as when a writer starts to type on his computer or a painter starts to paint on a canvas.

Copyrights protection starts from the time the work was created up to a minimum of 50 years after the death of the creator. This means the author has the sole legal right to his work throughout his lifetime plus 50 more years after his death.  

What are the exclusive rights of authors or owners?

The author or owner has the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Make the work available to public
  • Do derivation or alterations to the work
  • Require attribution or citation of his name

What is Public Domain?

Not all original works are protected by copyright law. Chances are you’ve come across images that is labeled as “in the public domain”. Generally, public domain refers to works:

  • whose copyright has expired;
  • belonging to categories not covered by copyright protection e.g laws, mere data and information, press information etc.

You can freely use and modify images in the public domain. However, there are few exceptions:

  • the person or organization portrayed are not denigrated or shown in bad light;
  • the image is not used for endorsement unless the identifiable person or organization gives permission.

Use Copyrighted Images under Fair Use

Some copyrighted works do not require the owner’s authorization when it is used in certain cases. The granted “use” of the work is supposed as minimal enough to breach the exclusive rights of the author/owner. Fair use essentially allows limited and reasonable use of copyrighted work e.g images and graphics for the benefit of the general public. 

As an absolute creation of US legal system, US Copyright law provides four factors to identify whether the use of copyrighted content is fair use or not.

  • The purpose and character of use is not intended for financial gain. 
  • The use of factual work is less likely to constitute a copyright infringement than the use of creative work.
  • The use of content does not include substantial amount or portion of the copyrighted work. The court reserves the right to determine what is “too much” and otherwise.
  • The use of copyrighted content or work does not diminish its potential market value.
How to Stay Safe Using Images in the Internet

How to Stay Safe Using Images in the Internet

1. Pass the "Fair Use" Conditions

Things to consider before using copyrighted Images.

  • You’re using the image for commentary, teaching, research or scholarship and not for profit.
  • You have repurposed and modified the copyrighted images—so it no longer looks like the original—for not for profit purposes. 
  • You only repost or use a thumbnail of the original image together with a link or only a portion of the whole image. 
  • You do not use an image for market competition or deface a brand or person.

Fair use is a complex provision in copyright law. Only invoke fair use when you’re absolutely sure, because the “4 factors’ can be fluid and interpretation depends on the court. 

2. Ask Permission from the Owner

The safest way to evade copyright infringement is to receive consent from the owner. Explicit consent is your best shot, however, you should remember that the owner is under no obligation to give consent. Also, giving a mere notice to the owner that you intend to use his work does not give you the privilege to use the image.

3. Use Images in the Public Domain, or Images with Alternative Licenses

One cool technique to sift out copyrighted images is to look mainly for images in the Public Domain or images with alternative licenses. Public domain as discussed above is free for use. Alternative licenses on the other hand are alterations to copyright assigned on images, such that you can use or/and modify an image as granted by the owner.

Creative Commons Search

Creative Commons or CC is an alternative licensed that include various degree of freedom to use an image. Extra care should still be observed when using CC images: very the the license before using it. 

CC Licenses include:

  • CC BY "Attribution" - Free to reuse, modify, use even for commercial purposes, and requires attribution.
  • CC BY-SA "Attribution-share Alike" - free to reuse, modify, use even for commercial purposes, provided attribution is made and the new creation carries the same license as the original.
  • CC BY-ND "Attribution-NoDerivs" - free to reuse for commercial and noncommercial purpose but modification is prohibited.
  • CC BY-NC "Attribution-Noncommercial" - free to reuse and modify non-commercially, and requires attribution.
  • CC BY-NC-SA "Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike" - free to reuse and modify non-commercially, requires attribution and the new creation must carry the same license as the original work.
  • CC-BY-NC-ND "Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivs" - free to reuse only non-commercially, requires attribution, and prohibits modification.

To see the list of CC licenses, click here.
Google Image Search

You can use advanced image search to filter images by license. Next time you google an image, click “Tools” and under “Usage Right” dropdown menu, select the license you need.

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons is a great resource for free images for research and education. A good thing about this site is that the license is explicitly indicated below each image result that is easy to understand.


A pool of CC images from the owners themselves, Flickr is a great tool to look for CC images. Its filter is also similar with that from google advanced image search.

Disclaimer: This information provided are basic information about copyright law and does not constitute a legal advice.

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