Copyright: using images you found online

Let’s talk about copyright infringement!
I’ve already written a post on what to do when you’re work gets used (stolen) without your permission last year, but as it still happens to me and other illustrators so many times I think it’s time to bring this topic up again and dive in a bit deeper.
Why I am writing this blog post? Two reasons. One is that the work of an artist is their livelihood and needs to be respected in order for them to earn a living. The second reason is that it’s good for people that use images from the internet to know what they’re dealing with and that it can cost a lot of money if you don’t use it correctly. So, this is for both sides: the creator and the user.

But before getting into the nitty-gritty, let me explain in just one sentence what the rule (and law) is:

You can not use an image you found on the internet without permission of the copyright owner.

Yes, it’s that simple. It’s not rocket science šŸ™‚ So, let’s dive into it deeper now!

Copyright and the law

Basically every image you see online, whether it’s a photo, an illustration, logo, drawing, etc. is copyrighted. But what is copyright? In short, copyright is a law that gives a creator ownership over anything they create. This can be a photo, poem, novel, illustration, art, etc. Once created it’s automatically copyrighted and the creator is not required to do anything more to assure this. Every citizen in a country that has signed the Berne Convention Agreement has to keep to this law. Read more about it here!

Only the creator/owner of the work is allowed to decide what his/her work is used for. That means you can’t use it without permission.
If you do use an image or work you found online without written permission of the creator, you are breaking the law. The creator is allowed to ask for a settlement for the damage done. And that can cost you a lot of money.

Why crediting an artist doesn’t make usage legal

Crediting an artist might seem a fair payment but not every artist wants exposure for their work, or wants to be associated with certain brands, companies, etc. The reasons vary because every artist is a human being and has their own thoughts. Crediting might seem enough to you but you’re not the one who gets to decide what the artist wants as ‘payment’. The artist is the one who decides.

My work has been shared by companies and organisations who’s causes I don’t support, or I didn’t have an agreement with. But because my illustration style is quite recognizable to those who know it, some people assumed I worked together with those companies.

That’s why the copyright law exists: it is there to protect the artist and their work.

How to use images you found online in a legal way

If you own a magazine, blog, website or any other kind of platform in need of some images to fill it, the internet may seem like a big candy shop of images. But to use those images, you need permission.
First, find out who the maker is. Sometimes it’s easy because you saw the image on the website or social media account of the maker. If you have found it elsewhere, use Google Reverse Image search to track down the maker. Yes, it might take some time (maybe 10 minutes) but if you want to use it, make an effort. Send the maker a message or email and let them know what you will be using it for. Wait until they respond and give you permission.

finders keepers copyright image stealing

If you can’t find the original maker, or they don’t respond to your request: do not use the image.
Using the image without permission means you are break the law and if the original maker finds out, they’re in their full right to claim a compensation for this.

If you need something quick or you don’t want to ask, you can decide embedding the image or video (only for online). This is a legal way of using content found online. Especially Youtube-videos, Facebook posts, Tweets and Instagram-posts are incredibly easy to embed.
In many countries there is something called ‘the right to quote content’, and in the US you have ‘fair-use’. The first one isn’t the same as fair-use though, please keep in mind.

Are you a business owner?
If you own a business and want to use something you found online: contact the creator. Then, offer them a fee for usage. There’s always a reason why a business shares images by others. It most likely has value to their brand, otherwise they wouldn’t share it.
So if it has value, pay the artist.
That buys them time to create new work and you actually are helping someone to make a living. Or even better: hire them to create something especially for your business. I promise you: most creatives love that!

Social media

With social media (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) nowadays a lot of creators allow others to repost their work on their social media channels, in the hopes of getting new followers and, fingers crossed, new clients!
Speaking for myself, I am okay with people sharing my work on social media, as long as they credit me properly and clearly (with my @-tag clearly in the description of the post) and it’s not to promote their own product/business/etc, but solely about the fact that they like my work. If that results in new followers, it’s worth it for me. Please share my work, spread the joy šŸ˜€ But I’m just one person.

Talking to some of my colleagues, many agree, but there are plenty that don’t agree and do not want you posting their work. And you have to respect that. It depends from person to person if they’re okay with you sharing their work so if you’re unsure: ask.

If it’s used by companies and brands to promote their own services and products instead of a tribute to the creator, that’s generally not appreciated amongst a lot of creators.

Watch this video of artist Adam JK below for example.

I agree with almost everything Adam says in this video. (BTW, this is embedding)
In the video Adam asks around 3:35 minutes if it’s illegal. Yes, it absolutely is.

“(Many companies think:, red) ‘This has value to me, I want to share it with my followers but I’m not going to bother figuring out who made it.’ […] There is this disconnect between ‘yes, it has value but I don’t value to the person who made it.'” – Adam JK

Good example of proper sharing:

View this post on Instagram

Why so many shows @netflix?! Illustration by @marloesdevee #illustration #design #ohhdeer #netflix #evening

A post shared by Ohh Deer (@ohhdeer) on

“But isn’t it awesome that businesses are sharing your work?”
For me, yes! There are businesses that share images, credit properly, dedicate the social media post to the artist and it’s exciting for most artists to get access to new followers and hopefully: new clients. Personally, I’m always very happy with that. But like I said: that’s just my opinion. If you want to be sure, make sure you follow the law and ask permission.
Then there are a lot of businesses that don’t credit, or use illustrations they find online to promote their own services, instead of dedicating it to the artist. And that’s not okay. If an image is making the company money in any way (getting attention through an image might directly result in money), the artist should be paid.

pay artists fairly

In this schedule above: take out ‘Brand pays for usage of cool image’ and you see what kind of problem we have? šŸ˜‰

Get your work easily removed
I come across a lot of artists on Instagram that are annoyed when their work has been used by another account which they didn’t approve of. You can very easily get your work removed from someone else’s Instagram account if you can prove you’re the original maker. File a copyright infringement report, it only takes you 10 minutes, and in most cases Instagram takes the other content down within 12 hours.

Many people know about copyright, many people don’t

Most creative professionals know what copyright is but people not in that business might not know about it. Some might not know they’re doing something illegal when they are using an image they found on the web.

There are people who are fully aware that they’re doing something illegal but do it anyway because they might feel you can’t touch them. There are plenty of those. If the website is clearly a business making money off my work, I send them a copyright infringement letter written by a lawyer.

But there are also people who receive copyright infringement letters and have to pay money even though they didn’t know they couldn’t take an image from the web. Of course that’s quite sad but it is the law. Same as: even though you didn’t know the speed limit was 50, you will still be punished because you broke the law, and you should have informed yourself before making that decision.
Copyright owners in the US often send out a DMCA. In many other countries, you’ll receive a copyright infringement letter insisting you take down the image and pay an amount for damage done.

When I see my work appearing somewhere and I sense that it might be because of lack of knowledge about copyright, I send a friendly email asking for removal, offer a fee for usage or ask if I can create something for them. That is a courtesy even though any copyright holder is in their right to charge money.

What if you’re a creator and someone is taking your work?

I’ve written a complete step-by-step plan here if you’re dealing with copyright infringement.
I use Google Reverse Image search to check specific images, and recently I started using Pixsy where I can connect my entire Instagram account to see where my illustrations appear on the web.

If the people clearly don’t know about copyright, feel free to send a link to this blog post. Hopefully they’ll be more careful in the future!

When your work appears on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and you don’t want it to appear there, you can easily file a copyright infringement complaint (click on the links to go directly to the pages). In most cases those social media websites take it down within 12 hours. Most bigger websites have a copyright infringement section.

Want to know more?

I’m an illustrator and writer and I am incredibly interested in copyright, especially since it has become very tricky with the internet. Do you need a speaker for your event to talk about this topic? Don’t hesitate to contact me!

A useful article: The Best Ways to Be Sure You’re Legally Using Online Photos (please note that ‘fair use’ only applies to the USA and not to the rest of the world).

Writing this blog honestly took me way longer than expected. I’ve tried to be as elaborate as possible but within limits otherwise it would become a book. I hope this blog post was useful to you! I do my best to research the topics on my blog thoroughly but if you have any suggestions, I’m always open to that. I might have missed some points.
Most of my research starts with the Dutch law, so it might be a bit different depending on where you live. So, do your research if you’re unsure šŸ™‚

Also, do let me know your thoughts on copyright infringement, if you have any. You can comment below!

Want to receive more tips and creative ideas in your mail?

Sign up for my newsletter and receive my monthly newsletter with sneak peeks of what Iā€™m working on, (illustration) tips and new paintings when they are for sale.

Thank you for subscribing!

Was this useful to you?

Please feel free to forward my website to others (social media links below). If you want to treat me to a coffee, that would be very kind.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *