Legality of Image Use

Picturing the Past – Part 3 of 6


According to Tech2, almost two billion digital images are uploaded and shared across the Internet each day and you can download them with a single click of your mouse. If you locate a physical photo in a book, pamphlet, newspaper or family album, all you have to do is scan it with your phone.

Our unprecedented access to so many photos raises serious questions regarding intellectual property and ownership. Can you legally use that fabulous image you just found? Should you?

Copyright and Public Domain

Photographs, like written works, are protected by copyrights. The photographer owns the exclusive right to use and distribute the image he or she has created. Those rights do not transfer to whoever has physical possession of the negative or print. Regardless of who owns the photo, the photographer remains the copyright holder, even if he or she is deceased.

Copyright protection is not permanent, however. Copyrights have end dates. When a photo’s copyright expires the image enters the public domain, which means it can be freely used by anyone. Many of the historic images we want to use to promote our attractions, events and destinations are copyright free due to their age.

All photographs published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. You can use them however you like. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the photographer plus 70 years. Click here for the answers to common questions about public domain.

If you are outside the Unites States be prudent and do the necessary research to understand the copyright rules and regulations for your location. 

There are literally billions of images in the public domain and more are being added all the time. For example, in 2014 the British Library released more the 1,000,000 images into the public domain.

It’s very easy to find these images. Enter “public domain photos” into your favorite search engine and browse away. Many libraries, museums and historical organizations have annotated their online collections so it is clear which images are in the public domain, and by default, which are not.

But It Came Up in Google


Just because you find an image online, as a result of a Google search, for example, does not mean the image is copyright free. It only means Google or whatever search engine you’re using thinks it’s found what you’re looking for.

Let’s say you ask Google for vintage images of the Plaza Hotel in New York. The search engine will respond with dozens of great pictures, some of which will probably be in the public domain and many of which will not.

You can filter Google image searches by Usage Rights. However, Google does not guarantee that the rights information it has on any given photo is accurate. Just as Google can serve up a picture of the Grand Canyon when you’ve asked for Copper Canyon, it can display images as “labeled for reuse” when they are actually under copyright.

Creative Commons

Works protected by copyright are subject to usage restrictions. Some are totally off limits and others may be used only in specific circumstances and particular ways. Photographers may use Creative Commons licenses to give the public permission to use their work. This is a fairly complicated area. Visit Flikr Creative Commons for an overview of how images covered under these licenses can and cannot be used.


What happens if you accidently post a picture and violate someone’s copyright? The photographer or his or her representative will contact you and ask you to stop using the image. Immediately comply with the request. Remove the picture from your blog post, website, Pinterest board or wherever it appears. If you have used it in a physical advertising piece such as a poster or flyer, you must pull the material.

Let’s say you took that lovely photograph of the big snowstorm in 1946 and turned it into a Christmas card you’re selling at your attraction. If the copyright holder asks you to stop, not only will you lose the money you invested in producing the cards. You may also owe the photographer or his estate a significant portion of what you made on the sales.

This situation is avoidable. Before you use an image, especially commercially, think it through. You always have other choices. The great shot of the ice skaters from 1899 is in the public domain. Maybe it isn’t as perfect as the 1946 blizzard shot, but it would still make a nice card.    


There is one instance in which it may be reasonable to risk violating a photographer’s copyright and it relates to pictures you find in family collections. I have several of my mother’s photo albums from the 1940s. They are full of appealing pictures I’d like to use in all sorts of ways. Because of their age, these shots are still copyrighted. But who owns that copyright? Who took the shots? Does anyone remember or care? Probably not. I am comfortable posting the images from my mother’s albums online. I am also comfortable modifying them. I would consult an attorney, however, before using them commercially.

Using Stock Photos

Try to resist the temptation to use stock photos. Many stock images are so bland and overused, they have become visual clichés. They add nothing to a post or document. Look through your own collection for a photo or other type of image to illustrate your material. Find something local and specific that your audience can relate to. If you can’t find anything appropriate, take a new picture. A fresh shot of the exterior of your building or a local street scene, even a routine one, is more interesting than a ubiquitous stock image.

If you decide you must use a stock image, make sure you understand the terms and conditions. Royalty free photos are not free, for example. You have to pay licensing fees to use them. There are online sources for free images such as and, the wonderful graphic design platform described in Part 4, has a large library of stock images and all are only $1.00.   

Your Pictures; Your Rights

As the photographer you hold the copyright on pictures you take. You can do anything you like with them. Post them on Facebook, sell them or turn them into Valentines. It’s up to you.

However, you must understand that images you post online will be shared and you will rarely if ever receive credit or attribution. Generally sharing is a good thing. We want the information we post online to spread. Don’t we?

Let’s say you take a cute picture of you cat and post it on Facebook. People love it and start sharing it with their friends. Before you know it, your cat’s face has traveled around the globe a few times. You think it’s just great until you discover a pet food company in Peru has posted your cat’s picture on their website. Your copyright has been violated. This is admittedly an absurd example, but this sort of thing does happen. If this scenario is unacceptable, don’t put your own images online. Alternatively you can watermark your images to try to inhibit sharing, but even that won’t solve the problem entirely.

If you have questions or concerns about copyrights, contact an attorney. Copyright infringements can lead to hefty fines as well as criminal charges.

Once you’re comfortable that you can use the images you’ve found, are you just going to post them as is? There are some quick and easy editing tricks you might want to try first. That’s coming next in Part 4.