Copyrighted Images: What Communicators Need to KnowRules, rules, rules! We all hate rules.

But as communicators we need to understand the rules around things such as copyrights and trademarks.

That IS part of our role.

When it comes to legal regulations, ignorance is not a defense.

Understanding these things is important for the success of your client and/or organization.

After Gini Dietrich’s blog post on the very frequent theft of the copyrighted PESO model, our team had a lot of questions on some of the details and rules concerning copyrighted images.

As we discussed these questions in one of our leadership meetings, I casually name-dropped the fact I had a friend who specializes in these types of legal issues.

Enter Shannon Montgomery, our tour guide through copyrighted images for this blog post (as well as next week’s continuation).

The Rules of Copyrighted Images

Shannon is a fellow bodybuilder and all around awesome chick.

She’s one of those friendship gifts of social media, and someone I absolutely adore and wish lived near me so I could force her to hang out.

She is the founder of Montgomery Law where she helps online and growth-stage businesses protect their intellectual property and stay…wait for it…legally fit. (Get it, she’s into fitness and helps keep your business fit. Clever, huh?)

And today she’s going to walk us through the rules, facts, myths, and misconceptions around copyrighted images.

Common Misconceptions Around Copyrighted Images

Because there are so many areas of grey when it comes to copyrighted images, there tend to be a lot of misconceptions. Here are a few Shannon sees the most.

The biggest misconception people have is that providing accurate attribution to a work is the way you avoid copyright infringement. But, that’s not how this works.

Even if you exclaim at the top of your lungs for the whole world to hear that you didn’t create the work, so and so did, but you’re using it anyway, you can still get in trouble.

People also fail to realize that copyright protection is conferred immediately when the work is “fixed in a tangible medium.

This just means as soon as something is created, it is protected by copyright law.

There are no extra steps necessary. Registering your work with the copyright office is a pre-requisite to filing a copyright infringement suit, but your work is protected under the law immediately. So basically, everything you find online that you think “isn’t” copyrighted IS copyrighted work. It’s just a matter of how important that work is to the creator.

How About Owner Rights?

Ok, so you are smart and proactive and you go ahead and get your image copyrighted. What rights do you have as an owner?

As the owner of a copyrighted image you have the right to do (and to authorize others to do) the following:

  1. Reproduce the work
  2. Prepare derivative works
  3. Sell, rent, lease, or lend copies of the work to the public.
  4. Display publicly.

Let’s Talk About Derivative Works, Baby

Not a blog post can go by without a TLC reference and what a perfect opportunity to talk about derivative works.

This is an area Shannon says there is quite a lot of confusion around.

One of those rights is to create derivative works. So they can take that image and turn it into any number of things and they’re the only ones who have the right to do this. So when you infringe on someone’s copyrighted work you’re also infringing on their right to create derivative works in a sense. It can be a dangerous road to start down.

Can We Be Fair…About Fair Use?

How about some of the circumstances like Gini laid out in her blog post a couple of weeks ago?

What if people take the PESO model, change it around a bit, modify the colors, and then say…”voila, this is mine.”

Problem solved?


Shannon explains:

Fair use is another area many people don’t understand and rely too heavily on. The crux of fair use is that a copyrighted work is taken and changed, altered, added to, or only a tiny portion of the work is used, thus it’s a new work deserving of copyright protection.

Unfortunately, fair use is a huge gray area, can be applied differently depending on what court you’re in, and is a defense to a copyright infringement suit.

So, you are still being pulled into court and forced to spend who knows how much to defend your use of that copyrighted work.

What does this mean for you? If you plan to use something you didn’t create in your creation, ask permission and/or get the license to use it. Then you don’t have to worry if it’s fair use or not!

I Want To Give Credit…But How?

Ok, so you want to make sure you cross your “i” and dot your “t.” (I always get cliches wrong. So I’ve decided to just start leaving them, as is. My versions are always better.)

Here’s what Shannon has to say (definitely more useful than a screwed-up cliche):

This one is going to depend! Surprise surprise, the lawyer says it depends. But, like I said if you didn’t create the copyrighted image don’t use it unless you have permission from the copyright holder or the license to use it. And then what type of attribution you give will depend on what either the copyright holder wants you to say, or what the license requires. Sometimes it’s only a name, sometimes is a name and a title of the work. It really just depends!

How Do I Protect My Stuff?

I feel like there could be a country song, full of angst and regret from business owners, who watch with despair as their images and intellectual property are stolen.

But Shannon will help us change that tune. Here’s what she says to do.

The best thing to do is going to head over to and register your work with the Copyright office! If the images are important to your company, do this immediately because you cannot sue for copyright infringement if you don’t have a registration.

The process is relatively easy and cheap and most people can do it on their own without an attorney.

Next, it is important for you to actively use the copyright symbol on the artwork. Put it either close to the image or somewhere near the work. This way people know the work is copyrighted and as the owner you’re serious about protecting it.

Use and Monitor. And Repeat

She continues:

Another great thing to do is to monitor the works that are really important to you or that you make money off of. Ask people to remove an image from something because it belongs to you isn’t bullying. It’s protecting your rights.

If you allow too many people to use something of yours without proper permission, a court is going to assume you don’t care about that work. When someone uses it and makes a ton of money off of it, and you want to claim copyright infringement it’s going to be difficult to prove because you didn’t properly police your work.  

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) provides a process to have images removed from websites, so that is always a great tool. If the website doesn’t remove the image for you, then they can land in hot water. Generally filing DMCA take down requests is very helpful in managing copyright theft and infringement.

But Wait…There’s More

Next week we continue this topic and discuss GIFs, memes, and “free” image sites such as Pixabay and Creative Commons.

Until then, what are your questions?

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino