March 2, 2022 (Updated: November 29, 2023)
Just because an image is available to view, copy, or save on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free or even legal to use in your content. We all know about content plagiarism and the academic and legal repercussions it can have. Copyrights for images and digital media are no different. And if you’re using media and images other than your own branded assets, you’ll want to make sure you’re using them appropriately. Explore these copyright image checker tools to monitor your digital media use.
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Copyright image checker tools let you learn more information about where a particular graphic originated and if you may use or reuse it online. These tools can help you discover what images you can use for free without legal repercussions. They can also help you track where your custom images land as they circulate the internet. Here are five copyright image checkers you can use online:
If you already have some information about who could hold the copyright to an image, you can browse the public catalog from the U.S. Copyright Office Database to learn more. Search by image title and name or photographer’s name. This gives you more information about the officially registered and recognized copyright holder.
Creators aren’t required to go through the U.S. Copyright Office to get legal rights to their creations, so you may not always be able to find the information here. People may take this extra step to register for copyright if they’re concerned about having a legal standing if someone steals their images.
Reverse Image Search is a component of Google’s image search engine. Access it by visiting Google Images Search and clicking the camera icon within the search bar. This brings up a new search tool that allows you to paste an image URL, upload an image, or drag an image into the box. The results give you image specifications, like the size and possibly related keywords that describe what you see in the picture. It also shows visually similar images and pages that include the exact matching image for which you searched.
Bing Visual Search is like Google Reverse Image Search and lets you search with pictures instead of text. Upload or drag an image from your machine, paste an image or URL, or take a photo with your device to search. The results show you pages with the searched image and options to filter and sort by the website or newest and oldest images.
TinEye is a reverse image search tool that allows you to find where an image appears online across the internet. You can do this with the image URL or by uploading a saved picture. The service tells you how many results it finds for each image and the locations where they appear online. There’s also an option to show results only from stock image sites or filter by options like the best match, website, or collection.
Use the TinEye services to verify images, identify stock photos, and check copyright compliance. The Google Chrome add-on lets you conduct searches on any page open in the browser. TinEye Alerts also lets you track where and how your copyrighted images appear online and learn if anyone is stealing your content without your permission.
SmallSEOTools offers a reverse image search that allows you to look up any image saved to your computer or copy and paste a screenshot from the internet for a search. You can also upload images right from Dropbox or Google Drive. This service searches Google, Bing, and Yandex to find everywhere an image appears online. To view the results, click the button for which search engine you’d like to use and the service takes you to the right engine to display the results.
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There are other ways besides using a copyright image checker to find out if you can use specific images within your content. Try these techniques to learn more about image ownership online:
A watermark is a logo, signature, or stamp overlaid on top of an image or video to provide information about the owner or creator. They’re often opaque or transparent so that you can still view the content underneath, to a degree. A watermark often contains the owner’s name, business logo, or other personal information. Images with watermarks are almost always copyrighted and you can’t use them without permission from the creator.
Using photo editing software to remove a watermark infringes on copyright. If you want to use an image with a watermark, you must contact the owner and ask permission. Some images from paid stock photo websites contain a watermark, which you can remove with a subscription to the service rather than asking for direct permission from the photographer.
Sometimes the copyright or image credit is in a caption or other text near or associated with the image. Check the captions for an image creator’s name or copyright owner. Sometimes, instead of a name, you’ll find the owner’s email address or a website link. Use that information to contact the rights holder and ask permission to use the image.
Sometimes you can find the copyright owner’s information within the file’s EXIF metadata. If you’re using Windows, check the info like this:
To look at the metadata on an iOS device:
Within these files, you should be able to find the copyright owner’s name or even full copyright notices. But keep in mind that not every image has copyright information in the metadata.
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Get answers to some of the most common questions surrounding digital media and image copyrights:
A copyright is a legal protection that assigns ownership to an artistic or intellectual work. It covers published and unpublished works you can reproduce, share, and sell for money. You may hear of copyright laws concerning materials like movies, songs, novels, photographs, and architecture. While these things are commonly covered by the law, a creator doesn’t have to register for copyright with the government to have their work covered under the copyright laws and acts in the United States. A copyright holder has four exclusive rights to their own work, including the ability to:
The purpose of copyright laws is to give authors, artists, and content creators the right to reproduce and share their own works wherever and however they want. You can do it for free or for payment. They’re not about making sure artists get rich from their work. Copyright purpose is actually the opposite. They exist so that people can’t steal someone else’s hard work and profit from it without their permission. If you create something yourself, you should have a say in how it’s used and who can make money from it.
According to U.S. federal law, any “work of visual art” can receive copyright protection. That’s a large category that includes works like:
Essentially, any piece of photography or artwork you can create by hand or with digital tools falls under copyright laws if it’s unique enough from other works that already exist.
In the eyes of the law, every artistic work becomes copyrighted the moment it’s created. So, yes, you need permission to use any image that you don’t take or create yourself. But here’s some good news: there are copyright licenses and doctrines that allow you to use certain images and media freely without contacting the photographer or artist directly for permission. Some instances where this can happen include:
If the owner of an image clearly and explicitly states that you can use their work without additional consent, you’re good to use those images. You can find images like this on royalty-free image hubs like Unsplash. You may also find these kinds of statements on photographers’ websites. Often, people make these types of free-use claims but still ask you to provide photographer credit, such as a link back to the website or including the creator’s name or contact information in the image caption.
The public domain includes all creative works that have no exclusive intellectual property rights. That means you can use them for free and sometimes even without attribution to the original creator. Content can enter the public domain for a variety of reasons, such as:
Websites like the Getty Search Gateway create repositories of public domain images you can search and use, though they often request that you share proper credit of the reference source on your website.
Fair use is a legal exception to the exclusive rights that a copyright holder has for their work. This principle exists to allow for limited and reasonable use of artistic works as they don’t interfere with the owners’ rights or ability to do what they want with their creations.
For example, teachers, librarians, and other educators often use images and other content under the fair use doctrine. They’re able to show photos to their students or include them in informational materials, like worksheets, without consent from the copyright holder. This practice works as long as the person or company using them doesn’t make any money from the materials. Those who use the fair use doctrine still often give credit to the source where they got the images or information in good faith.
Some images have a Creative Commons (CC) license. There are different types of CC licenses with unique rules about where, when, and how you can use the content and what types of attribution you need to include with them. These licenses let the owners keep the copyright of their material while allowing others to copy, distribute, or use the material for non-commercial use. That means you can use them how you want as long as you don’t make money directly from the sale of the work.
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If you accidentally use a copyrighted image on your website or with your content, there are a few things that could happen. You could get a request from the copyright owner to remove the image from your content. If so, remove it to prevent further legal action. In some cases, site owners receive a notice from the copyright holder that asks to purchase a license to use the image.
Some copyright holders may create a commercial arrangement that allows you to use their copyright content for an ongoing fee. And in the worst case scenario, copyright infringement can result in a legal notice to appear in court, along with financial compensation for using the image without permission. But, again, this is the worst-case scenario and pretty rare if you’re following best practices and applicable copyright laws.
Overall, though, the repercussions of using a copyrighted image without permission relate to how you’re using them and if you’re profiting from them. For example, if you use a copyrighted image in your blog posts but aren’t making any money from it, the owner may just ask you to remove it or include a credit. But if you’re using the image in your brand’s product packaging and are actively making money with its use, the copyright holder may choose to take more significant legal action.
For this reason, operate by the principle, “when in doubt, leave it out.”
If you’ve read the first part of this article and you’re thinking, “I don’t want to deal with copyrights so I won’t use images in my content,” think again. Using graphics and visuals as part of a content marketing strategy can be valuable for your readers to help them remember more of the information you share. Images also help break up long walls of text, boosting readers’ engagement with your content. Other benefits of using images in your content include:
Find out why adding graphics to your content is important in this guide.
Though all images have copyright from their creation and uploading to the internet, there are some sources and options you can choose to avoid having to contact the owner to use images in your content. These sources include:
These websites allow photographers and graphic designers to contribute images to the service. They’re popular with independent photographers and creators who want to get recognition online for their art and potentially secure paying jobs for their services. Here are several popular royalty-free image hubs to check out:
There are also similar public domain image hubs that allow you to search for older images that are in the public domain.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for from free image hubs, you can try a paid stock photo website. The concept is like that of royalty-free image hubs, but you pay to use the service. By doing so, you may have access to a larger repository of images and have the option to download and save content in different sizes or file formats. You may also have access to different images rather than just photographs, such as illustrations, vectors, and clip art. Some popular paid stock photo websites include:
If you can create your own images or get brand photos rather than using someone else’s, do it. You may already have a photographer on your team who takes employee headshots or product photos. Use them to take photos for your content creation projects, too. Even if you don’t employ a photographer, someone in your art, marketing, or advertising departments may do photography. Consider asking for volunteers to take content photos.
You can also hire a professional photographer on contract to take pictures for you. By paying for that service, your business owns the reproduction and distribution rights of the images they take.
Not all images are photographs. Illustrations, animations, and infographics all fall into this category, too. You can use ad creators or graphic design programs that allow you to use their software and royalty-free elements to design your own custom graphics.
On the internet, it’s so easy to right-click, save, and reuse an image. Following these tips, fact-checking your sources, and asking permission from the right creators can help protect artistic integrity online. It may even lead to good relationships with other businesses, influencers, and content creators. This helps build your domain authority, boost engagement, and win in search over time.
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