Stock Photography for Web Developers: Part 3 | WebReference

Stock Photography for Web Developers: Part 3

Stock Photography for Web Developers: Part 3

By Nathan Segal

Public Domain Photographs

When looking for stock photography, you can sometimes avoid paying for images by using public domain images. A good source for these is at You can search for images on their site, pay low prices for images and hire a photo researcher to find images for you. An additional resource page lists a number of free articles and books on the subject. you can write to directly at: National Press Building - Suite 296 - Washington, D.C. 20045 Tel: 1 (202) 277-8985 Fax: 1 (770) 818-5513 E-Mail:

For further information about what images may/may not be in the public domain, check out this document at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Reading Room. You can also browse through their catalog. Be aware that not all images on these sites are in the public domain. To find out more, you need to read through their legal notices.

Copyright Protection: Misconceptions

One relatively common problem is not understanding how copyright functions. It's not the purpose of this article to go into depth on the subject, but we can explore some highlights.

As an example, some people feel that if they obtain a copyrighted image and change it by a certain amount then it becomes a new image. In reality, the copyright owner has the exclusive right to modify their works in this manner, but for another party to do the same thing in which the work is transformed or adapted is a case of copyright infringement. If in doubt, have a look at the resources at the United States Copyright Office.

One of the reasons that copyright issues are so challenging is that there are many gray areas. One good resource for copyright issues is Photosource International, a Web site designed for stock photography professionals. It deals with many issues and will answer a lot of questions.

One of the frequent issues is if someone gets one of your photographs and uses it in an ad, book or other publication without your permission. One might assume that if the image isn't affixed with a copyright notice, the user cannot be held accountable. In reality, this isn't true. If one of your images is used without your knowledge or permission, that person is in violation of your copyright, regardless of whether that mark is visible or not. One thing to consider, though, is by having the copyright symbol in place is that it may result in a higher award, assuming you, as the copyright owner, decide to pursue legal action.

Copyright Issues on the Web

Enforcing copyright on the Web is an entirely different world. There is often the prevailing attitude that: "If it's on the Web, it must be free." This isn't true, as many people are finding out.

If someone uses your photographs on their web site without your permission, here are some things that you can do.

Note: In real life, this is not as clear cut as I'm describing here; there are multiple gray areas as documented on the Photosource Web site.

If you find that someone has posted your images on web site without your permission, here are some steps that you can take:

    1. Start by contacting the owner of the web site and let them know (by email or letter) that you own the copyright to the images they are displaying and ask them to remove the images.

    2. Another option is to send them a bill and ask that you be paid for the image usage. In some cases, a letter of this type will do the job.

    3. If not, you might want to consult an attorney, but in my experience, that can be expensive and might not be worth the effort. If in doubt, ask for a consultation before you begin.

As a case in point, several years ago one of my articles was copied from one site to another without my permission. In this case, I contacted the infringer and told him that I wanted the article removed from his site within 24 hours. He complied.

One attitude is that it's ok to use images on your Web page that are under copyright if you don't charge people for the material. In reality, this can be considered copyright infringement.

Some people feel that it's ok to copy images from a Web site and use them without getting permission. Not so. Many images are under copyright protection. In addition, it's entirely possible that the images on a given web site are not the property of the Web site owner but could belong to someone else.

The bottom line.... if you have any doubts about the usability of images, for whatever reason, contact the site owners and ask for permission first.

About Linking

One gray areas is when wanting to create a link from one Web site to another. While it's not illegal to post a link in this manner, it's wise to consult with the Web site owner(s) first, as the owner(s) may not want an association with you or your products/services. If in doubt, ask first.

Copyright Ownership as an Employee/Independent Contractor

If you work for a company as an employee and you take photographs as part of your job, then those images belong to your employer, unless you make prior arrangements otherwise. This applies even if you've not signed an agreement. If ownership of the photographs is important to you then it's necessary to create an agreement in writing of your request. A verbal agreement is not enough.

If you're an independent contractor/freelancer, the photographs that you take are yours, but when you hire yourself out to a client there may be some misunderstandings about who owns the images (and the copyright). If retaining the copyright is important to you, it would be wise to have them sign a document attesting to that fact. Still, according to copyright law, those images belong to you, the originator, unless you agree otherwise.

On the other hand, the client might want ownership and will be willing to pay a fee for that right. If in doubt, get it in writing.

As noted in an earlier article, a good resource for forms is the Allworth Press book, Business and Legal Forms for Photographers.

When Photographs Are Not Possible to Copyright

Photographs created for federal government agencies become public domain unless it's stated in a signed contract that gives you the copyright. Photographs created by government employees as part of their work assignments are not copyright protected.

In the event that copyright has expired on some works, these images will now be classified as public domain, meaning that they can be used by the general public. For more information, check out The Multimedia Law and Business Handbook.

In our next article in this series, we'll look at how computers have changed the stock photography industry.


For copyright questions, visit the US Copyright Office.

There have also been changes to the US Copyright Law as documented in The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act which extends protection for unpublished works, works of corporation authorship, and other categories of copyrighted material.

About the Author

Nathan Segal is an Associate Editor for He is an Artist and Writer who has been writing for computer and photographic magazines for 8+ years. His specialty is taking complex methods and explaining them in clear, easy-to-understand terms. To learn more about his work and background, click here.


March 27, 2003
Revised: October 28, 2005