(Part of my Better Online Content” series of posts: quick tips on creating more effective content that takes advantage of the social web’s unique publishing environment.)

Barbed wire (courtesy Keoni Cabral at Flickr CC)

Barbed wire (courtesy Keoni Cabral at Flickr CC)

“I found just the photo I needed on Google Images,” she said.

“Did you have permission to use it?” I asked.

“Um, do I need that?” she wondered.

“Yes, you do. Just because you find a photo via a search engine does not mean that you have permission to use it,” I said.

I’ve had this conversation many times with otherwise web-savvy people, so obviously there is widespread misunderstanding of copyright and usage rules for online images.

Here’s the deal….

It’s pretty much like the rules offline: you don’t use photos without the photographer’s permission, and you give them credit for the image in some obvious way, like a caption. Online, offline, on Pluto – it doesn’t matter where you find it, content belongs to the person who created it.

It is so easy to right-click an online photo and download it; people do it without thinking, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Many times if you ask, people will gladly give you permission to use their photo, but you do have to ask.

For more background and details, travel photographer Ken Kaminesky has an excellent blog post about photography, copyright and the law.

Whoops, OK. Where can I go to get photos?

When I need a good photograph to illustrate a blog post, here are my copyright-appropriate resources:

**  Flickr Creative Commons.  You’ll find millions of choices on Flickr Creative Commons, which are photos on the Flickr photo-sharing site that have a Creative Commons license allowing anyone to use the images for free, within certain restrictions. The photographer still retains copyright of it; you’re simply licensed to use it.

The “loosest” category is Attribution – anyone can use any of the images in this group, but you must give attribution (credit back) to the photographer, usually by linking back to the original photo, often in your caption.

There are 36 million photos in this group as of this writing, and lots of them are of excellent quality.  You can sort your search results in each group by Relevant, Recent and Interesting; I often find terrific photos when I sort by Interesting, which is exactly how I found the barbed wire photo above when I searched the Attribution group with the word “theft.”

**  Flickr Commons. Hat tip to my geek teacher husband Chris Fancher for telling me about Flickr Commons. These photos have no known copyright, and they are often really unique historic images from libraries and archives worldwide including the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, the Dutch Nationaal Archief and the Royal Library of Denmark.

When you need an old-timey, black-and-white or sepia-toned look, you can’t beat Commons photos, although many are recent enough to be in color.  Because they are digitized from film photography, the images are usually a very high resolution, so they’re great for using in presentation slides, too. I guarantee your audience would rather have a concept reinforced by a photo than yet another stack of bullet points.

** My own photos. That’s right; many times the simplest (and guaranteed-legal/appropriate) thing to do is grab your own camera and stage a quick shot of whatever you’re trying to illustrate, or do some hunting through your own photo archives.

This is why it pays to spiff up, crop and title your best photos as you archive them – the payoff comes when you’re searching for “spinach” or some other bizarre photo, and you find that set of veggie photos you took years ago at the farmer’s market.

Does that help explain fair and proper use of online photos, and why right-click is wrong? I’m not a lawyer, but I’ll play one down in the comments if you have questions, thoughts or other helpful resources on the topic.

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