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    Is that Image Free to Use?

    When it comes to using photography in marketing and communications materials, the rules around image use can be confusing.

    That said, as A/E/C marketing and communications leaders, it’s also important to be aware of the consequences of using an image without permission, even by accident. Penalties can be harsh, embarrassing to you and your firm, and downright expensive. Here are a few important image use questions to consider.

    When is an image under copyright, and who owns it? In simplest terms, as soon as a picture is taken, the person who took the photograph owns the copyright for it. Where this could vary is if you or a staff member takes a picture of a project site for your employer as part of your regular job. Then, your company owns the copyright.

    If you hire someone on a freelance basis to take photographs, the photographer owns the copyright unless there is a signed “work for hire” agreement or an agreement transferring the copyright. If there is no transfer of ownership, images must be attributed. Most photographers will supply their specific image credit wording.

    If you generate images in the course of your job, this also means that copyright protects your firm from other people using your pictures without your permission.             

    If there is no specific attribution for an online image, is it free to use? No, no one should ever assume that an image in digital circulation is free to use. Whether you see a picture with no credit or attribution, or it is accompanied by the nebulous “images may be subject to copyright,” always assume that there are restrictions on when or how you can use it without permission.

    Also, remember that simply adding an image credit or citation to an online photograph (for example, photos in a newspaper article) does not mean you have actual permission to use it. Attribution does not equal consent. Images may also be labeled “royalty free.” Here you usually have to pay for the license to use a picture, but that one payment may allow you to use the image multiple times and for various purposes.

    A popular and highly useful option that simplifies the image copyright process for creatives and marketers alike is the nonprofit service Creative Commons (CC). Licenses from this open-access website provide an easy, standardized way for photographers and other content creators to grant you permission to use their work with proper attribution. You can use any CC-licensed images as long as you follow the license conditions for those pictures.

    If my firm has a stock photo account, am I free to use any picture on that site for any purpose? Establishing a team plan with a stock photo house can undoubtedly streamline the image selection process for offices and staff in various locations. Just make sure your team members understand and comply with all usage limitations. Buying a license gives you the right to use a photo as prescribed by the licensing agreement. This applies whether you use a standard or “free stock photos” site.

    For example, stock photos might be marked for “editorial use only.” This content is created for use by news media and for other non-commercial purposes. Such images can be used for informational or educational purposes only, as in articles or documentaries that are newsworthy or of public interest. However, they cannot be used for commercial purposes, such as advertising, promotional campaigns, or even on free promotional items you might give away at tradeshows.

    A “commercial use” license means you can use a non-editorial image for materials with a promotional, for-profit outcome. This applies to images that are used either directly (for example, in a sales brochure or on your website) or indirectly (such as in your firm’s digital holiday card).

    The subject of image use can seem daunting, and we barely touched on the subject of image use in social media! However, suffice it to say that to play it loose with images that may be under copyright at any time can be a minefield.

    If you are not sure about the licensing rights or permissions needed for using an image, read the fine print. Most stock photo websites have an FAQ section. And if you are still in doubt, contact your corporate attorney.


    Maribel Castillo
    Vice President, Director of Corporate Communications
    T.Y. Lin International

    Maribel Castillo is vice president and director of corporate communications for T.Y. Lin International. Maribel has been an A/E/C marketing leader for 25 years. She oversees all aspects of T.Y. Lin International’s global communications functions for 50+ offices worldwide. Contact her at [email protected].

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