How to Legally Use Photos in Your Social Media and Online Marketing

Disclaimer: This article provides an overview of the basic principles of copyright and privacy laws in the United States, as they may pertain to the use of photographs. The material contained in this article is NOT legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client or other confidential relationship between the User and the Author Learning Center. Users should contact an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice regarding their particular situation.

How to Legally Use Photos in Your Social Media and Online Marketing

When you come across a photo online that would be perfect to share on your social platforms, use on your blog, or put in an online ad, it’s easy to simply save it to your computer and get to work!

But it’s also easy to misuse photos—and get yourself into a lot of trouble.

Copyright laws can be tough to understand, especially when it comes to photos. You have to consider who took the photo, all the people in the photo, and the environment under which the photo was taken. It’s easy to get overwhelmed!

So we’re breaking down the rules of using photos in your social media and online marketing to help you better understand when you can and can’t use certain images in your book marketing efforts.

Using a Photo Someone Else Took of You

A good rule of thumb to follow: when someone else takes a picture of you, ask for his or her permission before using it.

Copyright laws dictate that whoever took the photo owns the photo. Even if you’re simply using it on your Instagram, the person who took the photo has the right to sue you if they wish. Therefore, explicit permission is required to avoid any issues.

Now, you may be thinking, “But my face is in the photo. Doesn’t that mean I have partial ownership?”

Simply speaking, no. The photographer is creating original work, so they own the copyright.

However, in the real world, things aren’t always so black and white. So let’s look at a of couple potential scenarios.

1. You want to use photos that a professional photographer took of you at an event.

Whether you want to put this photo on the cover of your book or simply use it as your Facebook profile photo, you will need to get the photographer’s explicit permission.

Photographers use a variety of different licenses or rights for their photos, which allow for different usage. Whether or not the rights cost money and how much they cost is up to the discretion of the photographer.

A. Creative Commons license – Many photographers will get this license and choose their own set of conditions, which dictate whether or not credit is needed, if you can modify the image, where you can use the photo, etc.

B. Public domain – If a photo is in public domain, it means that it is no longer under any copyright restrictions and you are able to use and modify the photo(s) as you wish.

C. Rights managed – Many photographers and stock photo websites, if they don’t utilize a Creative Commons license, will put specific restrictions on use and associate fees with various usage rights.

Commercial rights – If you pay for or obtain commercial rights, you will be allowed to use the photo(s) to sell your own products, such as in a brochure, magazine, or online advertisement.
Non-commercial rights – If you pay for or obtain non-commercial rights, you will be allowed to use the photo(s) on personal websites, social media, or in any capacity that is not for-profit.
Exclusive rights – If you pay for or obtain exclusive rights, you will gain sole ownership of the photo(s) and the photographer cannot sell it to anyone else.
Non-exclusive rights – If you pay for or obtain non-exclusive rights, you can use the photo(s) but the photographer can also sell or give rights to other people, as well.
One-time use – If you pay for or obtain rights to one-time use, you are allowed to use the photo(s) once for one specific purpose that you have agreed upon with the photographer.

D. Fully copyrighted - If it’s unclear what the usage rights are for a photo and you are not willing to reach out to the photographer and ask, you should assume the images are fully copyrighted and you are unable to use them in any capacity.

And if you’re hiring a photographer for your own event, make sure to ask these questions upfront so you can determine and understand your usage rights before you sign a contract!

2. You want to use photos that fans, friends, or other attendees took of you at an event.

In theory, if a friend or bystander takes a photo, they have the grounds to sue you and charge you for rights just the same as a professional photographer would. However, it’s probably unlikely that they’re going to do that.

Just remember: it never hurts to ask for permission. Most likely, people will be okay with you re-posting a photo as long as you’re not using it for commercial purposes (meaning, using the photo to endorse or sell a product). But leave a comment on their photo or send them a private message and be clear about how you plan to use it, just to be sure.

It’s also good etiquette, whenever using someone else’s photo, to give them credit in the caption and link to their account.

Using a Photo You Took of Someone Else

Generally speaking, if you take a photo in a public setting and are simply using the photos for your social media accounts, you are free to do so without any explicit permission.

Even if there are other people in the photo, you are the photographer; therefore, you own the copyright and are free to use the photo as you wish.

However, there are a few potential issues to keep in mind:

1. Consider whether the people or person in the photo had any expectation of privacy.

If you took the photo in a private setting such as a home or office, you should probably reach out to everyone whose face is recognizable in the photo and get his or her permission, just to be safe.

In general, public settings are fair game when it comes to photos, because people don’t have an expectation of privacy. This may not be the case, however, if the event or venue explicitly prohibits photo and video.

2. Think about how you plan to use the photo.

If you want to use it commercially—on books, merchandise, online ads, etc.—you will need explicit permission from every recognizable face in the photo. This is to ensure that you are not making it seem like someone is endorsing a product when they are not.

However, if you’re simply planning to use it on your blog or social platforms (i.e. You’re not using the photo to sell something), this is considered non-commercial and permission is not required.

Using Online Stock Images

As mentioned earlier, most online stock image sites operate on a “Rights Managed” system, meaning they will sell you different usage rights at different prices.

Here are some of the most popular and used stock image websites:

Getty Images
Burst by Shopify

If you don’t want to pay for usage rights or just don’t want to deal with the hassle, there are a variety of great stock image sites that let you use, modify, and distribute images both commercially and non-commercially at no cost (just make sure to double-check the terms before you use them):

Negative Space

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