Copyright, Etiquette & Ethics of Using Online Photos
Genealogists love images—photos of their ancestors, historical maps, digitized documents, historic photos of places and events… But can we legally use the fabulous photos that we find online in a published family history? A genealogy blog? A research report? What if we only plan to distribute the document that we are creating to a few family members, or are not planning to publish for profit? Does that make a difference?
The best way to ensure that you’re safely using an image is to create it yourself. Visit the cemetery where your ancestors are buried, or the house where they used to live, and take your own photos. And, in case you’re wondering, taking a photo of a copyrighted photograph doesn’t count!
We don’t, however, always have the luxury of creating our own images. Historical photographs, especially of people and places that are no longer with us, are just too important a part of the story to want to leave out. But how do we find and identify photos that we can legally use to enhance our family histories?
Consideration #1: Is it Protected By Copyright?
The excuse that a photo you’ve found online doesn’t have a copyright notice doesn’t count. In the United States, most works first published after March 1, 1989, are not required to provide notice of copyright. There are also different copyright laws in different countries covering different time periods. To be safe, assume that every image you find online is copyrighted unless you can prove otherwise.
You also can’t edit or change a copyrighted image and then call it your own. Cropping and using only a portion of a copyrighted image in a blog post is still a violation of the image owner’s copyright, even if you give credit…which leads us to the next consideration.
Consideration #2: What if I Include Attribution?
Taking and using another person’s photo or graphic and giving them credit as the owner of the photograph, a linkback (if using it online), or any other type of attribution does not negate copyright infringement. It may make using someone else’s photo without permission a little more ethical because you are not claiming the work of someone else as your own (plagiarism), but it does not make it right.
How to Find Photos That You Can Legally Use
Search engines Google and Bing both offer the ability to search for photos and filter your search by usage rights. This makes it easier to find both public domain photographs, as well as those labeled for reuse through licensing systems such as Creative Commons.
- In Google Images search select “Search Tools” and then “Usage Rights.”
- In Bing, after selecting images, you have to first enter a search term. At that point filtering options will pop up. Select “License” for images marked as public domain, free to share and use, etc.
- Flickr also offers Creative Commons search capabilities. Under Flickr Advanced Search there are options to search only within Creative Commons licensed content. Of special note are collections hosted by archives, university libraries and similar institutions, such as this collection of over one million public domain photographs from The British Library.
- Specialty search engines such as Veezzle let you search for free stock photos across multiple sites. Scroll down past the strip of photos across the top titled “Premium Stock Photos” to find the free results.
In some countries, photographs produced by government agencies may be in the public domain. Uncle Sam’s Photos, for example, offers a directory to the U.S. Government’s free photo collections. “Public domain” may be affected by both the country in which the photo was taken, and the country in which it will be used (e.g. works made by the government of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland) and published more than 50 years ago are considered to be in the public domain for use within the United States).