Understanding copyright rules for photos can be daunting.

Save yourself the potential headaches, embarrassment and jail time that come with using photos improperly or illegally. (Mostly kidding about the jail time, but copyright infringement can carry some serious consequences.)

Understanding these copyright rules for photos can help guide your search for free Catholic images you can safely and legally use on your website or blog. But first…

What is copyright?

Copyright law gives the copyright holder the right to decide where their work is published. If you are the one who took the photo, you are the copyright owner of that image (unless you have a Work For Hire agreement).

These four copyright rules could apply to the images you encounter during your search: copyrighted, fair use, creative commons, or public domain. These categories determine whether you can use an image on your website or print materials.

Copyright Rule #1: Copyrighted images

Copyrighted images are off limits. Before using a copyrighted image, you must first obtain (or purchase) the right to use the image from whoever created it. Plain and simple.

Copyright Rule #2: Fair use images

With fair use, you can obtain the right for limited use of a copyrighted image without getting permission from the copyright holder. However, this only pertains to specific types of usage.

For example, fair use can be applied when publishing commentary, news reports, scholarly research, and parody. The images you want to use for your website most likely won’t fall under any of these examples of use. As a result, they won’t be protected under fair use.

Giving the copyright owner credit while using their work doesn’t qualify as fair use – it is still copyright infringement.

Copyright Rule #3: Creative Commons images

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that allows for the sharing of otherwise copyright-protected material. With Creative Commons, you might be able to copy, sell or reproduce a copyright-protected work.

Copyright rules creative commons

There are several Creative Commons licenses that are free for the public to use. These licenses essentially give creators an easy way to control how they want to share their copyrighted works. A creator can reserve certain rights and also waive rights for the benefit of other creators.

It’s estimated that over 1 billion works are licensed under the various Creative Commons licenses. Special notation and rules apply for each individual work, so you must study each protected work before using it for your own purposes.

Copyright Rule #4: Public domain images

Images in the public domain are those whose exclusive intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited or are inapplicable.

As a general rule, you should assume all images you find online are not for public use unless it is expressly stated. Pay attention to any restrictions, such as photo attribution or print restrictions. If you simply aren’t sure and can’t easily ask the copyright owner for permission to use their work, find a different image.

An easy way to avoid copyright headaches

Our first and best recommendation to dodge the headaches that come with copyright rules for photos:

Take and use your own high resolution images on your website. No headaches necessary!

You don’t need to have a high-end camera to take beautiful photos. In fact:

  • Right now, you’ve likely got a sufficiently powerful camera within arm’s reach: your smartphone. Use it!
  • If you do have a DSLR camera, consider taking an inexpensive beginner digital photography course. Better yet, simply search for tutorials on Youtube.
  • Perhaps you have a generous and talented photographer in your parish. Ask him if he’d be willing to provide beautiful photos for the parish (maybe even at a discounted rate).

Your website visitors want to see your church, your parishioners, and your events – all things that copyright-protected stock photos can’t provide anyway. It’s worth your time and effort to invest in your own photos!

What strategies has your parish used to obtain images for its website?

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.