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Copyright Laws and How to Follow Them

As a designer, it’s important to use high-quality photos in your work. When possible, of course, these photos should be taken per your request by a photographer who knows what she’s doing. Maybe sometimes that photographer is yourself.

As a college student, I know that it’s not always possible to pay to get photos taken for your work. As someone who’s not a photographer, I also don’t have the skillset to capture the right photo for free.

The dilemma that many designers then run into is this: I can’t take my own photos, I can’t hire someone to take photos, where do I get photos? For most images, Google won’t suffice. Aside from quality disparities, copyright laws run the web.

Copy what?

Did you know that when you create something, it’s automatically copyrighted under your name? No need to put © at the bottom (although, for some things, it’s still a  good idea), and no need to register it with any office (like you do with trademarks or patents). It’s illegal to steal someone’s intellectual property under copyright laws. So no, you can’t just Google the photo you need and pull whichever one you want.

Google does, however, have an advanced search setting that allows you to access something called the Creative Commons, a place where creators are able to modify their copyright to make photos, music, vector images, and other creations accessible to the public for use (commercial or noncommercial, with or without modification).

Some of my favorite sites in the Creative Commons to pull photos from are Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay, but you can find others. Just make sure to check the usage parameters to make sure you’re legally able to modify or sell a photo if your project requires.

Surely, you say, a free photo can’t be high quality and aesthetically pleasing. To that, ha ha ha. Take a look.

Free who?

Another type of media license designers use is royalty free. Royalty free photos aren’t necessarily free, per se, because a designer would have to buy rights to use the photo in certain ways. This, however, does not mean that the creator of the photo gave up his copyright. He still owns the photo, he’s just given you permission to use it based on certain parameters. Shutterstuck, iStock, and Getty Images are all royalty free photo sharing sites that you probably recognize the names of already.

That sounds confusing, but it’s convenient for designers who need extremely specific photos that they can’t find within the Creative Commons. Plus, once you buy the license to use the photo once, you can use it again forever, so it’s a relatively inexpensive way to find high-quality photos. Plus, your workplace may have a subscription.

Rights where?

The final type of media license, rights managed, is good for designers in advertising and PR, but can also be useful in other settings. This media license allows a designer to pay more to set the rights to use a royalty free photo.

For example, a designer creating an advertisement for a local shoe store could have found the perfect photo on Getty Images to advertise the store’s services. However, all the other shoe stores can still buy a license to use this image as well. That is, unless the designer purchases a rights managed license. Then, they can determine that no other store that sells shoes within a 100 mile radius of the original shoe store can use the image. That way, the designer’s advertisement won’t feel generic, as using stock photos can sometimes be.

But why?

It’s important to designers to understand copyright laws not only for their own well-being, but also for the well-being of their clients. If a copyrighted image is used by a designer on a advertisement for a client, both parties will suffer tremendously in legal battles for photos. And with the Creative Commons and royalty free licensing, there’s really no excuse for ignoring copyright rules.

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