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Can You Use a Picture From Google?!

Can You Use a Picture From Google?!

Can you legally use a photo from Google for your business? The short answer is no, it is best to avoid using photos from Google due to complex copyright laws. HOWEVER, the long answer is “it may potentially be okay” as there are ways to use photos from Google that are free, or can be approved to use for business purposes. Obviously,  Google is a great source to find stock imagery. But, if you decide to take this route, follow these guidelines. 

Why Is It Complicated to Use a Google Image?

The primary dilemmas that arise from using a photo from Google are copyrights laws and usage rights. A copyright is the exclusive legal right to print, publish, perform, film or record literary, artistic, or musical material. Most of the photos you see on Google fall under the category of copyrighted materials regardless if they are posted publicly or not. In general, It is best to assume that a Google image has a copyright owner and look into the usage rights of the photo. If you are using a Google image you will most likely need to contact the copyright owner and ask for permission to use it or give credit to them on your website. 

Top Cases And Examples of Google Images Being Misused?

There are a couple landmark cases that have drawn attention to the misuse of google images, or in legal terms “Copyright infringement for image search engines”. In these cases the Court also discusses the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). This is important to keep in mind as with online images you will need to follow general guidelines for copyright infringement AND the rules stated under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Essentially this act sets more parameters on copyright infringement to include issues that come up only with digital-images. For more information and specific provisions, read more here!

These are great examples to think of when trying to decide if a Google image is safe to use, and to see how serious the misuse of a Google image is when using it for your business. So let’s break these cases down!

First, we have Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp. 336. F.3d 811 (9th Cir. 2003), where an artist’s photographs were transferred into thumbnails and used by the public. Arriba Soft Corp., a similar image search engine as Google, collected over 30 photos of the artist's work and converted them into thumbnail images. This allowed many public users to access the photos for personal use. Kelly requested their photos to be taken off the site, which Arriba Soft did, but many of the photos were still accessible and already provided to public users. Kelly filed a case claiming copyright infringement, stating that the conversion of their images into thumbnails is providing free access to the photographs. Arriba Soft argued that the artist’s work was accessible as much of the public work is published online, AND that the lower quality of the photo changed the image enough to put it under Fair Use. The Court agreed with Arriba Soft Corp., stating the site was simply providing photos for public use but not claiming credit for the work itself. Here, Arriba Soft Corp. was found not liable for copyright infringement because they altered the photo AND were not using it for capital gain but for the functionality of public users. 

Second, we have Perfect 10 v. Google, Inc., 653 F.3d 976 (9th Cir. 2011), this case is very similar to Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp. as it is about altering artist’s images by converting them into thumbnails. But this case is slightly different as the images provided on Google provided a link to the image's original site that provided quality resolution full-sized images. The problem here was less so with the transformation of large photos to thumbnails BUT that it linked the thumbnails to full-size images, allowing complete access to an original work without requiring payment. Due to this slight change, the U.S. Court was very close to holding Google liable, but later found they could apply the rules found in Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp. Google was very lucky in this case, and had to change many elements of their search engine to avoid any future problems. If Google had been found for copyright infringement, they would have to pay for fees for each user that was granted fee access plus any fines associated with it. If any small business owner faced the severity of this issue it would likely be detrimental to the company and probably lead to the end of their business. 

As you can see, these two companies were BARELY able to get away with the use of images on their sites. They were able to show that their uses fell under Fair Use because they were providing the images for others to find and functionality, not company gains. You may be thinking, “well they were able to not be charged with copyright infringement”, however here at TLP we suggest you look at the bigger picture. First, the Court’s decision was based largely on the use by the companies; they were not using them for personal gain. Second, they have large sums of money that allowed them to go to court and argue their cases. If Google had been using the image to increase their revenue or claim credit, there would have been a significantly different outcome. You should really consider what are you using the photo for? What benefits or revenue will you gain from it? Will your business be able to survive the hardships and costs of being sued for copyright infringement? The above cases show how serious the use and disbursement of photos is for companies not using them for personal gain; it would be detrimental to many businesses if they had any similar or more extensive involvement. 

What Are Usage Rights?

A usage right is a legal right granted to an individual by an artist to use for a specific purpose such as editing, reprinting, selling, or to use on your business website. The most effective way to determine the type of usage rights attached to an image is to see what type of license it has, which can usually be found in the photo’s description or on the website linked to it. There are 2 types of licenses you should look for when determining how to use a photo; Creative Common license or Commercial license. 

What Is The Difference Between Creative Common and Commercial Licenses?

The largest difference between the two licenses is how you can use the image and the process you need to take to do so. A creative commons license is best known as the symbol of “cc” with the circle around it. This means that you can use a photo but you need to give credit to the original creator and there may be some limitations to how it can be used. For example, you may be able to use the image on your website as long as you do not receive revenue or credit for the photo. All credit or purchases received directly from an image should be given to the original creator, otherwise it can become a copyright infringement. A commercial license is images that have a non-Creative Common license and can be used from free sites or commercial sites that require payment. For more information, here is the official Google Help link! 

How to Avoid Copyright Infringement with Google Images

When deciding whether to use a google image, you should always look to the Fair Use doctrine standards. As explained in Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corp., and Perfect 10 v. Google, the way you use a photo is a critical element to copyright infringement. In those cases they were able to show that the transformation of photos to thumbnails decreased the value of the images enough to create fair use, however keep in mind how Google almost was found guilty for linking to full-size images. Fair Use is a legal doctrine that promotes the freedom of expression by giving you the unlicensed use of a copyright-protected work in certain circumstances. The U.S. Copyright Office oversees the fair use doctrine and determines the unlicensed use of a photo on the purpose, nature, and market in which it will be used. For example, if the image is being used as a filler on your website it will most likely be fine, but if it is being used to gain profits then it will not be permitted. There is such a fine line when it comes to Fair Use and Copyright Infringement; one side lets you use the image, while the other side can lead to severe legal consequences. For more information, Here is a link to the U.S. Copyright Office’s official website

There are a few options you can use for Google images to avoid copyright infringement.

  • First, you need to research the photo to figure out who the original owner of the image is. You are responsible for finding the owner, regardless if the image is being illegally used by someone else that posted it. Some dead giveaways to an image being copyrighted are watermarks on the photo or being redirected to another site when you click on it. You can use Google’s reverse imaging tool to help find the owner of the image.
  • Second, you can use Google’s license filtering tool to narrow down your search to images that allow free and safe usage.
  • Third, research the type of license the photo is under and follow the standards mentioned above.
  • Always try to embed a link to the photo or give some type of credit to the copyright owner as a way to avoid copyright infringement. 

You should always try to use your own photographs and material. It saves time by avoiding the research and permissions needed to use a Google image. However, if you need to use the Google image make sure that you are following the proper steps and guidelines to avoid copyright issues. 


Wanting to sell graphics on Canva? Check out THIS POST first!


THIS BLOG POST IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR LEGAL ADVICE. EVERY SITUATION IS DIFFERENT & IS FACT-SPECIFIC. A proper legal analysis is necessary based on your location and contract. Consult an attorney in your home state for advice regarding your contract or specific legal situation.

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