The internet is not your personal photo collection

By Chris Weaver / Guest Column

To put it bluntly, if you use an image that you saved from the internet without permission, you are probably stealing it.

At the heart of this issue is how easy the internet makes it for everybody to grab content from just about anywhere. For the purpose of this little missive, we’ll use Google as an example. The company has made it easy to search for anything we want, including images. Google will search for whatever is asked for, and even let you specify by file size, color and a few other options. A couple of clicks later and a “new to you” image is all yours.

The problem is that you do not own it.

What many internet users do not understand is that just because it’s out on the web, it doesn’t mean it’s fair game for anyone to grab. The internet does not imbue users with blanket copyright privileges. We can all simplify it: If we didn’t create it, it’s not ours.

The internet is allowing us to share information with each other. The keyword here is sharing. Artists, musicians, writers, architects, photographers, etc., are all using the web to showcase their work and promote themselves. The original artist deserves credit, and most likely compensation, for their work.

If the end use is in anyway connected to commercial gain or promotion, then permission needs to be obtained from the original owner of the image. This may involve anything from a simple OK to a more detailed financial agreement. Intellectual property agreements are not necessarily the intent of this column, and could easily take up many more paragraphs, as there are lawyers who specialize in nothing but protecting the creative work of others and helping them collect what they are due.

So the internet is not a free buffet of images. Here are a few more reasons not to “grab and go” with anything you find:

  1. In most instances, the images will be too small to do anything useful with. There’s a reason they are web graphics. (Side note: Do not pull the logo from your website and send it to your agency or vendor. It’s too small and no good for anything except the website.)
  2. Someone will inevitably recognize the purloined art and you will look foolish.
  3. If you think, “it’s not a big deal, I’m not hurting anybody,” try using an image of Mickey Mouse in your advertising and see what happens. You may well be the one “hurt.”
  4. Is it ethical? Is it the right thing to do? How would you feel if someone was using your work for their gain? This is probably the simplest argument against lifting imagery from the internet.


Of course, there are many sites devoted to making content available for anyone to use as they want, whether that’s photos, clip art or videos. Some make the downloads totally free, while others require credit be given to the site or the original artist. Flickr, the photo hosting service, gives users the option of releasing rights to the photos under a Creative Commons license. Users of Flickr can designate whether their images and videos are free to be used for a variety of purposes. It’s a nice alternative to Google and some of the other free stock art collections out there.

Sites like iStock and Masterfile offer weekly and monthly free downloads of their stock selections. It doesn’t hurt to visit these sites on a regular basis and start creating an economical image library.

There are plenty of options and alternatives out there if you look a little harder. Keep it in mind the next time you fire up that search engine.

Chris Weaver is art director of Marketing & Communication Strategies Inc., in Cedar Rapids.