To Use or Not to Use? Copyright Infringement & the Use of Online Images
Written by Lisa Montanaro | March 16, 2012


Many people are confused about using images in ezines, products or on their website that are captured from the web. I purchase most of my images from IStock, or other resources, but what are the clear cut rules?

I know Constant Contact offers free images as well as Microsoft clipart. And when writing about a product or resource (basically promoting them), is it safe to use a picture of the product or company logo? I’ve done this before.

You can get yourself into trouble by using images, can’t you? Even if you don’t see a “copyright” on them? I would assume that you can ask for permission and cite the image source. Could you could give advice to all those building their business about this? Thank you.


Great question! I have a colleague that just got into trouble with this exact scenario for using an image without permission for her ezine that was copyrighted by a photographer.

Copyright protection begins the moment an original work is created and lasts for the creator’s life plus 70 years. Copyright protection extends to literature, music, plays, choreography, pictures, graphics, sculptures, architecture, movies, audiovisuals and recordings. So you are correct that images and photos are included and given copyright protection.

Copyright infringement is using someone else’s creative work without authorization or compensation, if compensation is appropriate. So, what we are dealing with here is a potential copyright infringement of someone else’s photo or image. (It may also be a trademark infringement if the image or logo is trademarked.)

The owner of the copyrighted material controls whether others can reproduce the work, prepare derivative work, distribute copies or display it. Using it without permission, even if you credit the creator, is not acceptable. Neither is copying others’ original work that does not carry a copyright symbol.

However, there are exceptions. One is “public domain.” But, don’t misinterpret the term “public domain.” Just because it is on the internet, does not mean it is public domain! Once a copyright expires, it enters the public domain. Public domain comprises all works that are no longer protected or never were, including works created prior to 1923, and works created between 1923 and 1963 on which copyright registrations were not renewed. Works created since 1989 are presumptively protected, and all government material, such as statutes and laws.

There is also a Fair Use Exception to copyright infringement that allows the limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holder. It is permitted for literary criticism, comment, news, reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research. The courts use a four-factor balancing test to determine if fair use exception applies: 1) Purpose and character of use, 2) nature of use, 3) amount and substantiality of work used, and 4) effect on market value of work. Some people believe there is a 5th factor too that depends on the type of infringer (non-profit or for-profit) and its intentions and track record (a repeat offender or an unknowing and unintentional infringer).

The easiest way to avoid copyright infringement is to only use images from sources that specifically grant permission, some of which you listed, such as IStock. There is also a non-profit organization called Creative Commons that grants copyright permissions through a tiered approach ranging from selective protection to unlimited grant of permission. You can learn more at Be sure to look for a Creative Commons License on a website to see if the owner has specified which rights he or she is retaining, and which rights he or she is willing to release.

Another way to avoid copyright infringement is to ask to use the work. Sending a simple email request to use an image takes just a few minutes, and can save you a lot of turmoil (and potential legal fees!) in the long run. Approach people online on sites like Flickr. Let them know you’d like to use one of their images, which one, for what purpose, and offer to give them credit. Also, check Stock Exchange and Wiki Commons. Read through the restrictions and rights. Artists will usually list whether a photo may be used, for what purpose, and what type of credit must be given.

Despite all of the above, if you are using an official image of a product to promote it, the assumption is usually that the owner of that product is happy to have you assist in their marketing efforts. It has become common practice to use an image of a product when reviewing it, sharing it with your readers, and promoting it for people to purchase. Most companies that put a photo of their products on the internet are thrilled if you take that image and tell the world about that product. It is like having a global sales team! Indeed, if you are an affiliate of a product, there is an implied agreement for you to be able to use the images of that product in order to fully promote it as an affiliate. I often review products on my blog, and the companies that I do so for are only too happy to provide me with images.

The bottom line: When in doubt, use images that specifically grant permission. If you are unsure, do not use the image! Seek permission first or find a different image that is clearly permissible to use.


Copyright © 2011 Lisa Montanaro of LM Organizing Solutions, LLC.

Want to Use This Article in Your E-zine or Website?

You can, as long as you use this complete statement:

Copyright 2011. Lisa Montanaro, “The Solutions Expert,” is Principal of LM Organizing Solutions, LLC, a professional services firm created in 2002 that offers professional organizing, business and life coaching, and motivational speaking to individuals and organizations. Lisa publishes the monthly “DECIDE® to be Organized” e-zine for the general public, and “Next Level Business Success” e-zine for professional organizers and entrepreneurs. Subscribe today at  Lisa also publishes the DECIDE® to be Organized blog at Through LMOS, Lisa helps people deal with the issues that block personal and professional change and growth. To explore how LMOS can improve your home or work environment, or help take your business to the next level, contact Lisa at (845) 988-0183 or by e-mail at

Meet the Author

Helping others be the best versions of themselves gets me jazzed!

I’ve worn many hats in my lifetime—often at the same time—while enjoying fulfilling careers. I’ve been a performer, teacher, sign language instructor, lawyer, career counselor, law professor, coach, consultant, mediator, entrepreneur, speaker, trainer, writer, and author. 

I’m an eternal optimist and life-long learner, constantly researching ways to improve personal and professional effectiveness. And it brings me great joy to then pass on the results of that persistent curiosity to my clients and audiences. 

Of all the career hats I’ve been privileged to wear, my favorite is owner of this business since 2002. Why? Because it provides me the opportunity to work with wonderful organizational and individual clients. On any given day, I get to connect deeply with audiences, work with dedicated teams, improve workplaces, watch clients have a-ha moments, and know I’ve made a difference in their lives and careers. And that is very satisfying.