It’s as legal as trading commercial MP3s online. (Not!)
Photographers, artists, and graphic designs put just as much time, effort, and expense (for travel and equipment) into their work as writers do. Just as you shouldn’t plagiarize or violate the copyright of written texts, images deserve the same consideration. If you need to use an image, you can create your own, look for free graphics sites online, purchase an image, or contact the creator for permission to use it. There also are a good number of sites where image creators offer their work to be used for free for personal, non-commercial use, asking only for credit and a link back to their site.
Nevertheless, you’ll find that bloggers frequently borrow images from other websites without permission because they know that the worst thing that will happen is that the copyright holder can send them a take down notice, a formal letter which says “stop using my image because I own it.” If you do choose to do like other bloggers, be sure to properly attribute whose picture it is and where it came from; even though you borrowed the content without permission, many copyright holders might be appeased when they see proper credit is given. Also, you should copy the image to your server rather than linking to a copy of the image on the orignal server so that you are not using the original artists’ bandwidth.
Outside of classroom settings where you may be using an image to make a point in an online essay or as part of a mashup or other project (see the next section), you should only use other people’s visuals after you have obtained permission from the copyright holder. Even if you are creating a website for a client as part of a service learning project or in an internship, think carefully before using images you find on the web. You’ll want to avoid the professional embarrassment your client or employer would receive from a take down notice.
How Can I Use Images and Create Remixes and Mashups If I Can’t Copy from the Web?
If you are creating texts for a class assignment that will only be shared with your teacher and in your class, educational fair use rights do allow you great liberty to borrow copyrighted works from the web. Fair use rights are specific exemptions to copyright law that allow for use in certain circumstances; creating works for the classroom being one of them. Only you can’t share what you produce with anyone beyond the context of that class. No showing your multimedia production to family and friends. And certainly no publishing to the public Internet. That would violate copyright law.
There are some fair use exceptions, other than educational fair use, that allow for using a copyrighted work. Copyright law allows for the use of copyrighted works without permission when creating parody that is social commentary. And fair use is what allows authors to quote text in a work. One can also make limited use of a small part of a copyrighted image that is significantly transformed. On the other hand, even the tiniest sample of a piece of music is considered a copyright violation. Because the laws governing fair use are very complex, it would be best to consult your teacher before deciding that something is fair use on your own.
So play it safe. You can use websites that offer free images, such as Stock.XCHNG which contains both free to use (though check the license requirements carefully to see what is allowed) and pay-for-use images. Sometimes artists will let you use their work for noncommercial purposes. Another option is to look for works that give you clear copyright to use the work in certain ways, such as public domain works and Creative Commons licensed ones.
For instance, public domain works are those that are no longer covered by copyright law. Works originally published before 1923 in the U.S. are in the public domain and can be freely used however you like (learn more about the public domain). And if you significantly transform the work, you then have copyright on the new version yourself.
Even when works are covered by copyright, sometimes creators want others to be able to use their works beyond what copyright law allows by default, and they have granted legal rights using Creative Commons (CC) licenses. Try Creative Commons Search, and you’ll be able to see that there are many works online that are CC licensed.
Another method for finding photographs that may be added to your site legally is to use the public domain and freely-licenced media content available through Wikimedia Commons’s terrific online media file repository. There are tens of thousands of images available in this repository. Just make sure you check to see what type of “permissions” are granted for the files you want to use.
Similarly, you can use the Advanced Search option on Flickr to find images licensed with a CC license. Flickr provides search options for CC content tagged with permissions “to use commercially” or “modify, adapt, or build upon.”
But don’t think of this as a free-for-all where you can do whatever you want with the works that you find. Some CC licenses only allow you to make copies of a work—no derivatives allowed. Others allow you to modify a work and integrate it into your own creative composition subject to specific requirements of the license. CC licenses typically require you to attribute the original author. If you decide to use a CC licensed work, be sure to read the license carefully to know what you can and can’t do.