I am always amazed by how little bloggers understand about how copyright law works. Actually, I shouldn't be amazed; it's quite complicated and they probably didn't learn about it in school.
Because I studied journalism and photojournalism in college, I was a little bit more acquainted. But, I have to disclose: I am NOT a lawyer, and the following is NOT legal advice. Consult an attorney for your own unique situation.
Copyright law is fairly complicated, but I encourage you to check out this post by a lawyer about copyright law and your blog for more information.
What Is Copyright?
Copyright protects works the second they are created; you don't need to go and register a special copyright. That means that if someone else took a photo of a tree, that photo is protected by copyright law. You can't then right click and save their photo, upload it to your blog, and call it a day. I mean, you could do that, but you could be infringing on their copyright, and they'd be able to ask you to take it down or even sue you.
“Can I use this photo on my blog?”
Probably not. It depends on where you got it and if you got permission to use it in this context.
Can I use Google images on my blog?
Not without the owner's permission.
Can I take someone else's Instagram photo and use it on my blog?
Not without their permission.
Can I pay for a stock photo and use it for commercial use, such as on an ebook I will sell?
It depends. Did the license explicitly state that you could use it for commercial purposes? Or did the license say that the photo was “editorial”? If it's an editorial photo, you cannot use it for commercial use. Always consult the license and if you're confused, contact the stock photo service and/or your lawyer.
But what about fair use?
In short, unless you have EXPLICIT PERMISSION to use this photo in the way that you intend, then NO, do NOT assume you can use that photo on your blog.
Where to Find Free Stock Photos to Use on Your Blog
Why You Probably SHOULDN'T Use Free Stock Photos or Public Domain Photos on Your Blog
Free stock photo sites are awesome, especially if you're on a budget, but they come with a danger: Anyone can upload a photo and claim that it's theirs and that it's in the public domain or has a Creative Commons license or whatever. But that doesn't make it true. So you're placing a lot of trust in websites that can't thoroughly vet each photo to ensure proper permissions were obtained from the copyright owner.
I wish I could find the post now (maybe it's been taken down), but a couple of years ago, I read a blog post about a woman who had used a photo from a free stock photo site on her blog and was later sued by the image's owner! Even though she had downloaded it from a free stock photo site, the photo was later taken down, so she couldn't prove it.
Just realize you're taking a risk if you download from free photo sites.
Best Stock Photo Memberships for Bloggers
I think the best solution is to buy a subscription to a stock photo site. Below are some good ones that are made particularly for bloggers. By paying a subscription fee each month, quarter, or year, you get unlimited access to legal, professional photos to use on your site.
- Ivory Mix – This is the one I use! She is awesome and her license is very generous.
- Styled Stock Society
- Haute Stock
- Jana Bishop Collection – I don't think she has a membership, but she does sell bundles of her stock photos.
Photography Issues You Should Consider If You Plan to Sell Your Blog
If you plan to sell your blog at some point, then you need to think about this before you buy stock photos: Will the license for those photos transfer to the new owner? If not, you cannot legally sell the photos with your blog, and you'll need to delete them from your site before you sell it. That's a headache and could make your site less desirable. I know that Ivory Mix allows you to sell the photos with your site as long as the new owner uses it only on their site, and does not try to download the photos for use elsewhere. I contacted her about this, but you should read Ivory Mix's full license and policies to make your own decisions about this.
Extra Measures You Can Take to Protect Yourself
I read that if you want to be extra careful when you use free stock photography websites, then each time you download a stock photo, screenshot the photo along with its license and save its license. I suppose this is so that if you DO get sued, you can prove that, as far as you knew, the photo was a royalty-free stock photo. I have no idea if this would really hold up in a court of law, but it's something.
Again, if you want to be completely in the clear, it's worth it to purchase stock photography from a legitimate stock photo service. You could also take all your own photos, but that gets time-consuming!