Social media sites are carefully curated, with engagement often reliant on the creativity and quality of the pictures, so the search is ever on to find just the right photo to attract followers on Facebook, Instagram, blogs, web and networking sites.

But at what risk?

Dip into Google Images. Find the image that fits your copy. Upload to your company’s  social media site. Press Post. Send that content out into the world. Open yourself up to the potential of a hefty fine.

If you’re not entitled to use that picture, what you’ve just done is illegal. There’s a fine of up to $585,000 for corporations, up to $117,000 and a possible gaol term of up to five years for individuals. Taking something you don’t own says a lot about your credibility and can damage your reputation.

It need not be that way if you know the rules and play nicely. Our role is to manage our clients’ issues to avoid a crisis and understanding Copyright law is a critical communications discipline.

Image copyright exists to protect the work of the artist who created it in the first place and to kibosh those trying to get something for nothing. The fundamental principle of copyright is: if you don’t own it, don’t use it.

Sharing isn’t necessarily caring, like helping yourself to something in a shop and passing it onto your friends for profit. You wouldn’t shoplift – and stealing an image is the same. Copyright law applies to the online arena as in any other environment

For professionals working in the social media space it’s best to read the fine print and have at least a working understanding of the basics of Copyright law.

Click and the image is protected

The general rule is the photographer, or whoever snapped the picture, is the owner of the image. Even if it was not on their camera. That image is automatically protected as soon as it’s created; there’s nothing the photographer need do. If you took the photo, you can upload it and share it, digitally or in print. As the owner, you can use the image as you see fit, put it on a billboard or use it in advertising material, the decision is yours alone.

Thou shalt not steal

Prices vary considerably when buying photos and costs depend on the size, where and how often the image is used. Consider if you want to buy exclusive rights to the photograph, or if you’d be happy to see it popping up on, say, your competitor’s material or merchandise. Unless you purchase exclusive rights, you’ll be buying the right to use the photograph but not own it. Similarly, when you engage a photographer, the photo is always owned by the creator – unless it was created for domestic purposes such as your wedding, then once you pay the photographer you own it.

Ask nicely and be polite

Some photographers will allow use of their images without a fee. There are various search methods to find the creator, so there’s no excuse. One of the simple ones is Google’s reverse image search. Another is It’s a good idea to have multiple options and check them against each other. The originator might agree to allow you to use the photograph as long as you give ‘attribution’ by declaring on the image the name of the photographer - the human, not the company.

This is not automatic, so ask nicely and be aware you are asking for someone’s work for no cost. If the photographer doesn’t’ give you approval, don’t be offended, try and negotiate a fee.

Best effort and good intentions

Demonstrating good intentions from the outset will stand you in good stead if you get into hot water later. Seeking to attribute or purchase need not be a protracted negotiation. Contact the photographer any way that’s available to you; it can be a direct message, text or email. Advise them in writing that you would like to use and attribute their photo and show appreciation for their work. If you don’t hear back to the contrary, at least you can show that you acted in good faith. Keep a record, such as a screen shot, as confirmation of any exchange of communication.

Advice ignored

You’ve ignored the advice and posted a photo anyway without payment or attribution. The photographer might contact you if you’re lucky.  If you’re not, a lawyer might and ask you to take down the image.

Take it down. Now. Don’t wait. The longer you take, the worse it will be for you and it could be seen as ‘wilful’, which could well put you on the steps of the court house.

If you’re dabbling on the wrong side of the law, at least check your social media channels regularly for any communication. Excuses such as, “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t see your post telling me to take it down”, is akin to saying, “The dog ate my homework,” and that never works out well.

Understand the terms and aim to be legitimate

The Australian Copyright Act is a federal legislation and ultimately the court decides if there’s been a breach of the Act.

The three basic terms to understand are:

  1.  Public domain (PD): This where the copyright has expired or doesn’t require permission. It doesn’t mean material that is freely accessible, as that material might still be subject to copyright.
  2. Creative commons (CC) licences: These are often offered by research sites, libraries and educational institutions where the originator created the content with the express intention of it being shared. Enter the term ‘creative commons images’ to search for licensed images that are free to share – and remember attribution is still encouraged.
  3. Fair Dealing (FD): Under FD, material is exempt from copyright if shared for criticism, research, study, review, satire, reporting news or legal advice, as well as if it assists in providing access for people with disabilities.

Criticism exempts only the person posting the picture. Say, for example, a restaurant critic used an image; that would probably be exempt – or if you made a funny PowerPoint presentation and used the images to demonstrate a point in a research paper. You aren’t exempt simply because you aren’t making a profit.

Rather than get into the position of having to defend your actions, it’s wise to run the objective ruler over your intentions and choices. If there’s a commercial interest, you’ll probably fall foul of the Fair Dealing exemption.

There are two sides to the copyright coin – to protect and to punish. If you use an image that you could have purchased, someone is losing out. It’s better to walk on the side of the angels, have a clear conscience and support creatives and photographers in the process.

A great resource to check is the Australian Copyright Council they have fact sheets on everything to do with copyright. 

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In a Click of the Shutter - Heusler Public Relations