Collins Dictionary’s learner section has a simple way of defining copyright:
If someone has copyright on a piece of writing or music, it is illegal to reproduce or perform it without their permission.
Oxford (a premium version but here is the link) is a bit more complex:
The exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.
In other words: someone, a real human being or beings, made something. It belongs to them and they have a right to be paid if you use it.
While the definitions above don’t specifically mention photographic images, copyright applies to them too. In South Africa, the law is complex – especially if you are concerned about copyright on pictures you have taken yourself. There is an ongoing controversy about whether the photographer or the person who commissioned the photograph holds copyright – but one thing is clear, someone owns it!
For the editor or writer who needs a picture to illustrate a piece of content there is one basic rule:
Assume that any image you see online is covered by copyright.
If you download a picture and use it in your blog or online news article, and someone holds copyright, you are liable in two ways:
1. You have broken the law and might be subject to a criminal or civil lawsuit.
2. Far more likely, you can expect a bill from the professional photographer who holds copyright and who wants legitimate payment for their work.
But then: how will you illustrate anything?
It is your obligation to establish that the picture you are taking is free or licensed for you to use. There are legitimate sources of free images, or images which hold one or other form of Creative Commons licence. Outside of those obviously free sources, it’s your problem to figure out what the copyright on that gorgeous picture of a cat is. My post here has some good tips on how to do that.
Do the legwork and know that you are operating legally – and more importantly that you are not taking the bread and butter off a fellow professional’s table.
Note: all the pictures used to illustrate this post, and the related social media posts, were sourced from free or Creative Commons sources, or were purchased with actual money.
Main picture by Adil Ansari on Unsplash – which a great source of free images.