Copyright and Image Use—What You Need to Know

Recently, someone asked me the following question on Formspring:

“I just started a blog and I’m interested in posting images from editorials. How do I correctly credit the images? Whose names should I include (model, photographer, publication etc) and should I link back to where I found the images?”

The copyright symbol. I created this graphic.

This is an excellent question, and it happened to come in right around the time I wrote Trademarks—What You Need to Know, so instead of responding on Formspring, I thought a full post would be helpful to many. The truth is we’re all more likely to infringe on another’s copyright (accidentally, of course), or fall victim to copyright infringement (Ellegate, anyone?), than ever have to worry about trademark infringement.

As I indicated in my post on trademarks, I am not an attorney. As such, I cannot advise anyone on this subject from a legal perspective. What I have done is pulled together info that answers the questions above. I don’t know who submitted the question to me, but I hope this post helps!

Copyright In a Nutshell

A quick study of United States copyright as it pertains to your content is easily digested via these U.S. Copyright Office FAQs:

What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.

What does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “What Works Are Protected.”

How is a copyright different from a patent or a trademark?
Copyright protects original works of authorship, while a patent protects inventions or discoveries. Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs identifying the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguishing them from those of others.

When is my work protected?
Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.

Do I have to register with your office to be protected?
No. In general, registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work. See Circular 1, Copyright Basics, section “Copyright Registration.”

But what about your blog name and domain name? This excerpt of  the U.S. Copyright Office page, What Does Copyright Protect?, provides an explanation…though I do suggest you read Trademarks—What You Need to Know if you haven’t:

Can I copyright my website?
The original authorship appearing on a website may be protected by copyright. This includes writings, artwork, photographs, and other forms of authorship protected by copyright. Procedures for registering the contents of a website may be found in Circular 66, Copyright Registration for Online Works.

Can I copyright my domain name?
Copyright law does not protect domain names. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit organization that has assumed the responsibility for domain name system management, administers the assignation of domain names through accredited register

How do I copyright a name, title, slogan or logo?
Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. In some cases, these things may be protected as trademarks. Contact the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, 800-786-9199, for further information. However, copyright protection may be available for logo artwork that contains sufficient authorship. In some circumstances, an artistic logo may also be protected as a trademark.

Blog tip: The correct form for a notice is: “Copyright [dates] by [author/owner]”. You can use C in a circle © instead of “Copyright” but “(C)” has never been given legal force. Using “All Rights Reserved” isn’t required. [ Source: 10 Big Myths about copyright explained ]. Alt 0169 is the keyboard code for creating the © copyright symbol on your blog.

Copyright and Blogs

I discovered an incredible post by Smashing Magazine which is really all you need to read about copyright—and in plain English. The following two subsections are excerpts of Copyright Explained: I May Copy It, Right?

Copyright in the Web: An Overview

  1. Copyright applies to the Web.
  2. Your work is protected under copyright as soon as it’s created and protected for your lifetime, plus 70 years.
  3. Copyright expires. When copyright expires, the work becomes public domain.
  4. Ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the result tangible expression of the idea can. (updated)
  5. You may use logos and trademarks in your works.
  6. You may use copyrighted material under the “fair use” doctrine.
  7. You may quote only limited portions of work. You may publish excerpts, not whole articles.
  8. You have to ask author’s permission to translate his/her article.
  9. The removal of the copyrighted material doesn’t remove the copyright infringement.
  10. If something looks copyrighted, you should assume it is. (updated)
  11. Advertising protected material without an agreement is illegal.
  12. You may not always delete or modify your visitors’ comments.
  13. User generated content is the property of the users.
  14. Copyright is violated by using information, not by charging for it.

Bloggers’ Rights and Duties

  • Ignorance of the Law does not make one exempt from compliance thereof. You carry the full responsibility for everything you publish in your weblog. Using protected work, make sure you fulfill your legal obligations.
  • Be aware of your responsibility. Check your facts, consider the implications, control the comments, give credit where credit is due, disclose professional relationships, disclose sponsored posts, avoid “blackhat” methods. [10 Rules for Responsible Blogging]
  • Make it easy to distinguish paid and editorial content. “Never claim that you are an objective, unbiased source if you are being paid to provide information. Always make it easy for your readers to distinguish between advertising and editorial content.” [12 Important U.S. Laws Every Blogger Needs To Know]
  • You should ask author’s permission to translate his/her article. According to the Berne Convention, “Authors of literary and artistic works protected by this Convention shall enjoy the exclusive right of making and of authorizing the translation of their works throughout the term of protection of their rights in the original works.” Therefore you need a permission to translate an article into another language. [What is Copyright?]
  • You should not present stolen content. “The law does not provide protection for federal crimes or intellectual property violations, meaning that you can potentially be found contributorily liable if this type of behavior takes place on your site.” [12 Important U.S. Laws].

Suggested reading: About Creative Commons and also on Creative Commons, About the Licenses.

This image is mine, not stolen. Mr. Grasshopper, shot last October.

Using Images and Thumbnails

Bloggers, almost all of us do it—even biggies like The Glamourai—we use images from magazines and other sites on our blogs. Without permission.

Most of us know that images we did not personally create must have some kind source attribution or citation, but the only way to ensure you are protected is to seek permission before using images that do not belong to you. That said, who is actually going to contact a magazine for permission to use a photo on a blog, and if we do not get permission from Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, are we guilty of copyright infringement?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to this question, but there is some leeway for image use because of Fair Useand how it relates to copyright law. According to Wikipedia:

Fair use, a limitation and exception to the exclusive right granted by copyright law to the author of a creative work, is a doctrine in United States copyright law that allows limited use of copyrighted material without requiring permission from the rights holders. Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship. It provides for the legal, non-licensed citation or incorporation of copyrighted material in another author’s work under a four-factor balancing test. The term fair use originated in the United States. A similar principle, fair dealing, exists in some other common law jurisdictions.

Apparently, imagery and musical compositions enjoy a higher degree of protection under copyright laws, and fair use does not always provide protection for bloggers using creative works without exclusive permission. Jennine Jacob of Independent Fashion Bloggers (IFB) wrote a very helpful post in 2009 on this very subject; I suggest you all read Fair Use Explained: More on Copyrighted Images on Blogs.

My own interpretation is this, and again, I am not an attorney, and this is not legal advice: If I use an image from a magazine or online source in order to report on it or make commentary, and I do not claim it as my own and provide attribution, and I do not alter the image or profit from it in any way, then it would seem I am complying with the rules of fair use.

Guidelines for Image and Content Use

If you intend to use images or content that are not your original works, for the purpose of commentary, criticism, or reporting, you should:

  • Not reproduce an entire work of any sort on your blog.
  • Use quotations to indicate content that appears on your blog, verbatim.
  • Disclose the source of any quote or excerpt, and include a link to the source.
  • Avoid using copyrighted and commercial imagery to represent you or your blog (for example, in your header image).
  • Avoid altering images in any way (outside of resizing them to fit your post).
  • Cite the artist or photographer’s name, when it is available.
  • Disclose the source of the image and include a link to the source.

For more info watch the IFB livestream!

If this loooooong post wasn’t enough and you still have questions about your content and copyright laws, it just so happens that the very first panel for this week’s IFB Evolving Influence Conference isWho Owns Your Blog Content? So catch the livestream if you can’t attend in person, because I’m sure it will be very enlightening.

And there’s no need to worry your lovely heads about where to catch the stream. I’ll have a post up on Thursday that will make it a cinch to watch and follow #IFBCon, from wherever you are in the world.

In the meantime, I have some packing to do!


  1. Images… I’ve only had to ask for permission a few times: Once for my original header image, once for a map of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, and anytime I feature someone on my blog using images from their blog as a gesture of goodwill and because some bloggers ask that you ask them first. The remainder of the images come from Creative Commons, Amazon (for album reviews) or from close contacts who don’t care about copyright that much. That said, if I know or can find out who created the image in question, they are credited and, when possible, linked; otherwise, I use « inconnu » , or “unknown” in English (which thankfully does not happen too often).

    And deleting comments (once posted) is never, ever a good idea; that is one way to be trolled. Screening is okay, IMO; in my case, it’s 99.9% spam and the rest a legit comment that got caught in the cogs.

    Note: Legit can either be negative or positive; just as long as it doesn’t look like a spammer wrote it, it goes up.

    In short, I try to use “open-source” sources for my blog as often as possible.

  2. Very useful and informative, as always! Ive got to get signed up (registered? Whatever! I need to check on this obviously!) for the live IFB stuff since I wont be there!

  3. Since you’re not a lawyer, as you remind us, your advice isn’t much use. I’ve been forced to research these issues, due to a lunatic who is threatening me and several other bloggers in German court. This website, which is maintained by several law schools, is a good source of information and an indicator of how complicated these issues are.

    1. Sister Wolf, I’m sorry you didn’t find this post helpful. So many did. And although I am not a lawyer, Jill ( a few comments down) ran this post by a trademark lawyer and she did not indicate that my assumptions were incorrect.

      I do appreciate you sharing the link, however.

  4. This is a fantastic post! I use other people’s imaged fairly regularly and I never know whether crediting the source is enough. That certainly seems to be the done thing in the blogging world, but I have also read some fairly strongly worded stuff in the past saying that you must always ask. So your discussion of fair use was very helpful, thank you!

  5. Thank you Vahni for again adding an informative post. While you aren’t a lawyer and therefore cannot give legal advice, your posts on Copyright and Trademark law are very informative. Yes, it’s complicated but not so complicated that a simple explanation will not serve to make us more aware of what we post on our blogs and also how to keep the “wolf” at bay for our own content.
    Thanks V! Have a blast in NYC!! Give Lee and Kristy a friendly hug from me!

  6. Vahni this is wonderful. I know many of us have touched on copyright law before on our blogs in various forms, but I’ve never seen anything this comprehensive. Thank you for taking the time to put this together, especially when you are scrambling to get ready for IFBCon!

    I already asked Lee to give you a hug for me, and now I’ll ask you to do the same and give a hug to Kristy and Lee and everyone else you see from me! 🙂

    Off to share this now!

  7. After running what you’ve written past a trademark lawyer I used to work for, I feel I have a better handle on the situation regarding the use of trademark/service mark symbols, copyright symbols, and trademark infringement, especially the criteria that must be met to have a true trademark infringement case (I’m thinking of v. Thanks for highlighting these issues in well-written posts.

    1. Jill, since you did not indicate that your lawyer contact had any dispute with this post, that leaves me to assume this post is indeed accurate and my assumptions aren’t off. Which is great! Glad to know we’re both better informed about all this legal mumbo jumbo.

  8. And I MUST say that this (frankly) uber enlightened post is all the more interesting than perfectly suitable for “Florilège d’Esthète”‘s vibrancy Dear V !!! I (notably) deeply agree with you about editorials’ usings, beyond the credits’ (natural) mention (question of intellectual honesty) above all a delicate matter of self-appropriation, with an (according to me absolutely necessary) value-added in terms of personal creativity . . .
    ps: Warmly Hope you’re Well Dear !!!
    a presto, Antoine

  9. Thanks for another wonderfully insightful post. I think using images from other sources is always a touchy subject. You have that attitude sometimes that ‘I’m such a small blog, no one is going to notice or even be bothered’. I think the stakes are a little riskier when you have advertising on your site. As potentially the owner of the photograph or image could argue you are using their work to earn money from it. I tend to try and get my images from the creative commons search on flickr. But I hold my hand up, I sometimes ignore the little symbols that tell you whether or not you need to credit the photographer, it is something I need to start doing moving forward.

  10. This is such an informative post V, especially the part on using editorial images.

    Thanks oodles, i too wanna send hugs all round, so please share the big fat Greek hugs doll!

  11. This is nothing short of epic, lady! I’m amazed. Copyright is a scary word and it can make blogging such an intimidating thing – especially for all of us who post largely on subjects outside of personal/OOTD photography. Thank you so much for providing such an informative insight into the topic!

  12. So, if I crop a scanned image, would you say that is a violation of copyright? I tend to approach these things as an educator where we make extensive use of “fair use.” I had previously thought if I do not benefit materially from the use of borrowed materials then I am safe…this suggests, I may not be. Yikes!

    1. Terri, thanks for your comment. I don’t think scanning an image is a copyright violation…as long as the image is not altered, it is simply a reproduction, kind of like posting a jpeg to your blog. I do think educators have more freedom in terms of fair use, however, since images or content is being used for teaching purposes.

      BUT, as I am not an attorney, this is not legal advice. So you should probably do some research on your own to be sure.

  13. First, thanks for adding the plug -in that picks up my details like blog name, email etc. so I don’t have to keep typing it in 🙂 After reading a guide on Pretty Shiny Sparkly I realised every WordPress user can add it on but some don’t. This post is quite helpful since a lot of us are guilty of using images from the web, even The Glamourai as you mentioned.

  14. Thank you all for your comments on this post! I often write these kinds of posts because it pushes me to learn more—but if it helps my blogging homies, that’s a total bonus!

  15. can’t wait to go home early tomorrow from work to see the streaming of the IFB conference…this is so exciting…thanks for the comment love…even though how much we try to avoid in this kind of problem…there will always be someone or something that always gets in the way…

    Thanks V for being so amazing


  16. Fantastically informative as always!
    I’m really glad you write these types of posts, it’s important for everyone to read up and learn about rules in the blogging world. Just because we’re on the internet doesn’t mean you can do whatever you like, there are still laws.
    Must say Mr Grasshopper looks lovely! Such a stunning photo V, the colours look so beautiful in it!! 🙂
    Much Love and Good Luck for the IFB Conference, shall be watching and learning!! You’re going to do a fab job 🙂

  17. Some great suggestions – I think it’s vital that private and business bloggers understand the importance of copyright when it comes to images. The same applies to video as well though… maybe something on video copyright would be useful.

  18. Thank you for this post. I have a book review blog, and I always post the cover of the book I have read and reviewed. In that way, I use it to advertise the author’s work. So, hoping this falls under fair use. Even though I am not a US citizen. Can’t imagine an author denying the use of it, or should you go to the original cover artist the pubisher has used in theory?

    1. Aurian, I do believe posting the cover falls under fair use because it is part of a critique. Of course, I am not an attorney, but there is this sentence in the explanation of fair use above:

      “Examples of fair use include commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship.”

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