Images and Copyright Infringement

Guest Post by Irene Watson

Nothing sells a book like a good book cover, and a good book cover almost always has an eye-catching image. Finding the right image can be difficult enough, and the last thing an author needs is to discover that an image on his book cover is copyrighted and a lawsuit will be pending because he didn’t take the time to find out whether the image was in the public domain.

People judge books by their covers. There’s no way around it, and even the worst written book can potentially sell well if it has a winning cover. Big publishing companies have staffs of graphic artists to design eye-catching book covers, but often self-published authors cannot afford an expensive book cover, or they simply try to cut corners. Other times, they might prefer a photograph or an older image they think will resonate with their readers. In any case, finding the right image can be difficult.

Recently, I asked an author where he got the image for his book cover and he told me Google Images ( ). Sadly, the image he used was not in the public domain. It is copyrighted and he used the image without permission, and I’m finding this situation is becoming more and more common among authors.

Let me say this loud and clear: Just because an image is on the Internet does not mean you have the right to use it. And now I hear some people saying, “I know that. That’s why I put the artist’s name on the back cover or on the copyright page.” Wrong! Even attributing the work to the artist does not give you the right to use the image. After all, you are going to make a profit by selling that book and that artist’s image is going to help you sell your book, so doesn’t that artist have a right to some of that profit? Of course. Unless you check with the artist for permission, which you need to get in writing and often will also pay a fee for, you do not have the right to use that image.

And it’s not just images on book covers. I also see a lot of copyright infringements inside books with photos and especially cartoons or comic strips. Sure, we all love “The Far Side,” but that doesn’t mean Gary Larson loves you putting his cartoons in your book without his permission.

Bottom line: Any image you plan to use you must assume is copyrighted, and then you must research and find the owner and receive permission. If you can’t find the owner, or you write or email the owner and do not receive a response, DO NOT USE THAT IMAGE.

So what is an author to do if he doesn’t want to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a graphic designer or for permission to use an image? He finds royalty free images or images in the public domain.

Royalty Free Images can often be found at places like Stock Photo websites or other sites, simply by Googling “royalty free images.” At these sites, photographers or others upload their images and you have the right to use them for free. Nevertheless, these sites make me nervous. You’ll be better off to go take your own photos or find a photographer willing to take a photo for you. If you do decide to use a stock photo image, I recommend you still contact the owner to let him or her know of your intention and ask for written permission regardless. You also still need to attribute the image to its owner or creator.

Public Domain Images are images whose copyrights have expired. Depending on what country you are in, the copyright laws can vary. Generally, copyrights run fifty to seventy years either after the image’s creation/publication or after the death of its creator. Remember, however, that copyright laws have changed over the years and the length of time of copyrights have been longer and shorter at different times. As a general rule in the United States, anything prior to 1930 is usually in the public domain, but it never hurts to be safe and double check. Sometimes copyrights can actually be renewed, in which case an older image might still not be available.

Where do you find public domain images? A simple search will yield many results. Some of the websites I’ve found are listed below. Perhaps the best website is Wikipedia because it will usually only have public domain images on it and it also has links to other public domain images.

Remember also that even if you find an online image in the public domain, your ability to use it will often depend on the quality of its resolution. If you don’t understand resolution, talk to your book cover designer to find out whether an image will work. Often once you find the image you like online, you can track down a paper book that contains the image and then scan the image so you have higher resolution.

Remember, regardless of whether or not an image is in the public domain, to provide the artist’s name so proper credit is given.

Finally, remember that it doesn’t matter how you use the image—on a book cover, inside a book, on marketing materials, or on your website, unless you own the image or have obtained permission to use it, don’t use it.

Website Resources for Public Domain Images:

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find  reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on September 23, 2012, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Excellent piece on copyrights, Irene.Here's an interesting 'twist,' if you will. My wife took the picture of me used on the back back cover of several of my novels. The publisher in each case required my wife to provide a signed release from me, showing I had given her permission to release the photograph to them.Ted

  2. We're so glad you helping educate authors about copyright infringement issues. One resource that we've used with great success is Flickr and reaching out to the photographer to get written permission to use images in a book. Surprisingly more than 60% of our requests to use an image in a book were granted by the copyright holders. We also think Google's and the Creative Commons advance search engines which allow you to search for images you can use with a creative commons license is very, very useful. Particularly as more books move to e-book form, correcting issues related to copyright infringement may get easier, but the base copyright infringement issues will still remain.

  3. I've played it very, very safe by using my own photographs for my most recent books, and photos by friends – with permission and a credit – for the others.Another author I know went to the Texas State Archives for some images to use for his cover; they did not charge anything for the use – only a credit.

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