Images and Copyrights: The Myth of “Internal Use”

If you’ve worked in an office for more than a few months, I’m sure you’ve seen people pull images from the Web and use them in presentations, emails, etc. Most people think nothing of it, assuming there are no legal issues because the images are only being used internally.

Unfortunately, internal use qualifies as commercial use in most circumstances. So copyrighted images require permission to use internally.*

What if it’s not copyrighted?

It almost certainly is. Images are automatically copyrighted by their creator at the time of creation. Always assume an image is copyrighted, even if it has no visible copyright notice. And always assume you’re not allowed to use it unless you have explicit permission to do so.

How will I get caught?

That’s the big question, isn’t it? Odds are good that the copyright holder won’t know if an image is used internally. Maybe you’re willing to take the risk. But keep in mind that if you do get caught, the fines and fees are likely to be MUCH more than it would have cost to legally obtain an image.


  • Here’s a story about the accidental use of a $10 stock photo costing a copywriter $4,000.
  • And though it’s not strictly related to images, here’s one about a company paying a $300,000 settlement for distributing copyrighted magazine and newspaper articles to employees.

What are my cheap, legal alternatives?

Fortunately, there are plenty of places to legally obtain cheap or free images:

  • Flickr’s Creative Commons library is a great place to start. Thousands of people have made their images available via the Creative Commons license, which puts certain (usually very reasonable) restrictions on their use. The Attribution license is the most useful in this case, as it allows free use of the image in commercial situations as long as you credit the owner.
  • Shutterstock, Dreamstime, iStockphoto and other low-cost stock image sites allow you to purchase stock images for as little as $1.
  • Here’s a good list of additional free sources.

How do I find out where an image came from?

If you already have an image and you want to find its source so you can get permission to use it, try a reverse search engine such as Tin Eye. You can upload the image and the search engine will find other places it is used on the Web.

More information has an excellent FAQ if you’d like to learn more about image copyrights. Social Media Examiner has a good article as well.

*The major exception is if your use of the image qualifies as “fair use.” Fair use is a legal provision allowing use of copyrighted material under specific circumstances, such as for research or education. You can read more about fair use here.

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