Flickr Images – Free For Use, Or Not?

As Featured On EzineArticles

One of the main factors in getting any visitor to your website or blog to return is its interestingness (what a word) and in my opinion the most important element is the images you use. You can use images to make the page flow better or communicate ideas. In short they will grab your visitor’s attention and maybe encourage them to read more, or even return. So where do you find the images you want? One of the most abused sites is Flickr. I say abused because despite what you may think most of the images posted to Flickr are not free for use, whether that is for personal or professional use. Of course it’s not only Flickr because there are hundreds of thousands of images to be found on other websites.

I should point out at this time I am not a lawyer, Copyright Law as it applies to digital images can be very complicated, even from country to country, but the general interpretation of copyright is “If you took the photo or created the image, then you own the copyright”. Importantly though don’t send me your copyright questions, I cannot answer them, seek proper legal advice

Ask yourself this. Is it perfectly OK to copy someone else’s picture and incorporate it in your website or blog? In short, the answer is NO. If you have not paid for an image or been granted permission to use it on your website or blog then you are really leaving yourself open to possible legal proceedings against you. No one will find out? Don’t be so sure. Services like TinEye, although still in their infancy, are beginning to make it easier for photographers to find who’s using their images on the internet. Sometimes even a search of Google images can produce results for photographers. Here’s an example of what I am talking about.

The image above is one of mine. By using TinEye I can check to see if it has been used elsewhere. What exactly is TinEye? It’s a reverse image search engine. You can submit an image to TinEye to find out where it came from, how it is being used, if modified versions of the image exist, or to find higher resolution versions. When you submit an image to be searched, TinEye creates a unique and compact digital signature or fingerprint for it, then compares this fingerprint to every other image in it’s index to retrieve matches. TinEye can even find a partial fingerprint match. TinEye does not typically find similar images (i.e. a different image with the same subject matter); it finds exact matches including those that have been cropped, edited or resized. There are many uses for TinEye, but here are a few:

  • Find out where an image came from, or get more information about it
  • Research or track the appearance of an image online
  • Find higher resolution versions of an image
  • Locate web pages that make use of an image you have created
  • Discover modified or edited versions of an image

Here are a few screenshots from TinEye in action

Whilst TinEye still does not reach every image on the web, its gradually adding to its database all of the time

From the above screen, you can see that TinEye has found 2 other instances on the web. In the next screen TinEye will identify where it found the matches for my image

As you can see TinEye has identified where the two images are located and even although one of them has been cropped, TinEye has still managed to make a comparison against my original image. By clicking on the web address I can see how the image was used. In both cases I authorised their use.

Let’s go back to Flickr, as I previously said most of the images that are shown on Flickr are copyright of the original photographer. It’s the default settings when you upload an image. However Flickr does contain a wide variety of images with different licenses. Many photographers make their images available under the Creative Commons license, just search for Creative Commons.  This image license determines whether you have permission to use a file or not and how you can use it. For example, not all licenses allow their photos to be used commercially. Visit the Creative Commons website for details on image licenses.

Another source of free images is to use Google’s image search to find photos with a free license. Just go to ‘advanced options’ and choose images that are ‘labeled for reuse/commercial reuse’. One thing you must always be careful of though and that’s images that are obtained from 3rd party sources, like those offering free images. If those images haven’t been licensed correctly, the company or photographer that owns them could sue YOU.

Of course in an ideal world you would use your own photos. Search the internet and you will find countless tutorials to help you to improve your photography skills. However, when all else fails you might want to have a look at trustworthy ’stock photo’ websites, some of which are free. However, even here, some photographers impose restrictions on the use of the images they supply to stock sites, so be careful to check the license.

To be really safe you can use sites that sell images, or to be more precise, they sell you a right to use an image on your site. If you do use one of these sites, check to see how much they will cover if you get sued for using one of their images which is later discovered to be subject to copyright.

What about free options. You could consider a site like SXC which has hundreds of thousands of photos and a more strict uploading system, hopefully reducing the chance that you’ll get an image that is stolen. There are other free sites, but as always, be cautious when using unknown sites, which may offer images without the author’s permission.

Finally, always remember to consider the source. Just because someone slaps a Creative Commons label on a photo doesn’t mean that they own the photo or even understand what the label means.


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