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Image sourcing – 10 gotchas

Images are central pillars of a brand, having a profound effect on the way in which it is perceived externally. Images equally have an important role in internal communication, in the form of presentations, stationery, posters and every day emails.

Image sourcing – 10 gotchas

Without due care and knowledge, it is all too easy to breach copyright or intellectual property ownership rights. Legal action against you and/ or associated fines can run to hundreds of thousands of pounds. What should you look out for, and how can you avoid the risk of fines or legal action?

Paid, Free and Bespoke Images

At the highest level, there are 3 ways of sourcing images for use by an organisation:
  • Paid Images: Images where you purchase a license to use an image, whether this is in perpetuity, or licensed on a recurring basis.
  • Free Images: Images that have no purchase or license cost attached.
  • Bespoke Images: Images that you create yourself, or that are created on your behalf by a 3rd party
With the explosion in the number of individuals submitting images to commercial and non-commercial websites for sale and re-use, the available image options have equally grown. There is little that cannot now be found, whether it’s a graphic component, photo or clip-art.

Paid image platforms

There are numerous image sourcing platforms out there. The model is simple – you purchase a license for use of an image. An important qualification is that you are buying a license for usage – you’re not buying the image. Each site has it’s own niche, comprised of:
  • Search capabilities
  • Pricing
  • Licensing models
  • Quality
  • Uniqueness
All of these points are key, and there’s no way of prioritising them for everybody. It’s down to what’s important for you. Most of my commercial time has been spent using Shutterstock, which for me strikes a good balance between cost, choice and quality. There are many others including iStock, Getty Images and ImageSource – to name a few. There are no rights and wrongs in choosing a platform.

“Free” image platforms

For each paid image platform, there’s a “free” one. I’ve put free in parentheses for a reason. Every site has some terms and conditions that you should be aware of, however simple or reasonable they are. While there may be no exchange of money, there may be obligations that you are required to fulfil. The most common of these obligations is that you credit the original creator – who still owns the copyright to the original material, whether they have chosen to share it for free or not. My favourite “free” site at the moment is I like the images they carry, it’s simple to use, and there’s a nice range of subjects, composition and styles.

Search Engines

Possibly the biggest and most common source of “free” images are search engines, such as Google and Yahoo. It would be a mistake to assume that what’s available via search engines is freely available for commercial or even non-commercial use. Advanced Search settings allow some filtering by license type, but it is still incumbent on the person downloading the image to know the usage rights and limitations. Other common sources, that frequently pop up via Google or elsewhere are Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and (less so these days) Flickr. Once again, you must check the usage rights.

10 gotchas

It’s not practical to list out all of the licensing options available across all of the image platforms. There are myriad considerations, each platform is different, the landscape changes, and I don’t want to be sued myself! The following are the major points to be aware of:
  • Does your license allow you to manipulate the image?
  • Does your license allow your agencies to use your account to download and manipulate images on your behalf?
  • Is your license per seat, per named user, per download or # of downloads per month?
  • Are you required to credit the original source?
  • Are you licensed for non-commercial and/ or commercial use?
  • Does your license cover all media (e.g. TV, Print, Digital etc.)?
  • Does your license cover all quantities (e.g. volume thresholds)?
  • Does your license cover all usages (e.g. promotional merchandise)?
  • Are you buying the image Royalty Free, or licensing it on a recurring and ongoing basis?
  • Are there geographical limitations regarding usage?
You need to be clear on all of the above points. If in doubt, seek guidance.

Bespoke images

If you’re adept with a camera, you may be tempted to start creating and using your own images. There’s a real logic to this, not least of which are the facts that you own the copyright, and the image will be as unique as it’s possible to practically get. The major watch-out here is brand infringement. Let’s say you want a photo of a vehicle, or a high street, or a piece of technology (let’s say a smartphone). Snapping the image is easy, however if it includes a company name, brand name, logo or copyrighted symbol or design, and you want to use the image for commercial gain, you must have the express written consent of the copyright/ trademark owner. The husband of a friend worked for a major (Cupertino based) tech company who were known for routinely suing people for using images of their devices. Alternately, and if you have deep pockets, and/ or need to ensure that your image appears nowhere else, you might procure a custom shoot. Professionals should take care of the points regarding brand, IP and copyright, but you’re still on the hook if you use it, and it’s not licensed correctly.

Internal communications

Whether it’s a sales presentation, seasonal communication, chat amongst friends, or even just sharing good news about press coverage that you have secured, copyright still applies. Bringing a powerpoint presentation to life with images carelessly sourced from the internet could breach copyright. Copying and sending a picture of your business being featured in the press has the same issues. If your PR agency sends you a clipping from a publication that you have featured in, they either have the rights to do so, or should be sacked! Some PRs will send a link to the original article, and if you want to share the good news with colleagues, you should consider doing this too. An email between colleagues, using a humorous image found on a search engine carries the same risk. I’m not suggesting that the risk with the above points is significant, but it exists, and anyone sourcing and using images should be aware of it. This is a staff education piece. Unless you own the work, or you have an appropriate licence or agreement, you cannot legally use it.


Detecting digital copyright theft/ infringement is remarkably easy, and solutions exist that allow brands to automatically scan for instances of their assets being used online. Most businesses will have a degree of understanding and accommodation if you have unwittingly stepped over a line, though ignorance of the law is absolutely no defence. Businesses get sued, and the sums involved can be substantial. If you’re approached regarding possible infringement, consider your response carefully. Prompt withdrawal of the offending article may be the most prudent course of action, followed by an appropriately worded note of contrition. (Talk to Legal first). It may seem like something of a minefield, but using the checklist above, it should be possible to navigate the maze with confidence.