24 Apr 2020

Copyright Images in Social Media Marketing

Understanding image rights is challenging for any company and can seem like a huge grey area of uncertainty. When creating a marketing campaign it’s imperative to remember that sharing images on Social Media without the correct licence is in fact infringement.

Many businesses actively seek out brands and prosecute them for copyright infringement. Image rights directly affect you and your business; read on to discover all you need to know about Copyright Images in Social Media Marketing.

In our ultimate guide we’ll be covering the following questions;

  • What actually is copyright infringement?
  • What do social media platforms say about copyright?
  • What are image licences and where can you find the best-paid stock image sites?
  • Where can you find free images?
  • What are the restrictions of free images?
  • What should you do if you’ve been caught infringing copyright?

Image Copyright

The Collins English Dictionary gives the following definition of the term copyright:

“The exclusive right to produce copies and to control an original literary, musical, or artistic work, granted by law for a specific number of years (in Britain, usually 70 years from the death of the author, composer, etc, or from the date of publication if later).”

In short, it’s a form of intellectual property protection that safeguards the copying, misuse or modification of something you physically create. The creator of a photo, video, song, etc. reserves the right to keep their design from being used by anyone else. This is especially important if you’re seen to use an image for commercial gain.

Image Rights 

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 is the key piece of legislation to consider when reading up on copyright law. 

This act gives creators the right to control the ways their material can be used. This is any work considered ‘original’, which exhibits a degree of labour, skill or judgement is acknowledged by this law. Ideas alone are not covered by copyright. 

All images online are automatically protected by copyright unless stated otherwise. More about exceptions like Creative Commons later.

What Can You Do? ‘Fair Use’

The law allows you ‘fair use’ of a creation protected by copyright. Here’s what the law deems to be allowed:

  • Private or research/study use
  • Performance, copies or lending for educational purposes
  • Criticism or news reporting
  • Incidental inclusion
  • Copies and lending by librarians
  • Caricature, parody or pastiche
  • Acts for the purposes of royal commissions, statutory enquiries, judicial proceedings and parliamentary purposes
  • ‘Time shifting’ – recording of broadcasts to listen/view at a more convenient time

What is Incidental Inclusion?

Incidental inclusion is where a piece of work is unintentionally included in another. An example of this would be a news report which features music played by a passer-by.

When reading about this, it’s noticeable that sharing an image on your commercial social media accounts won’t be deemed ‘fair use’.

What is Copyright Infringement?

Gov.uk offers a clear definition for copyright infringement:

“Infringement is a legal term for an act that means breaking a law. IP [intellectual property] rights are infringed when a product, creation or invention protected by IP laws are exploited, copied or otherwise used without having the proper authorisation, permission or allowance from the person who owns those rights or their representative”.

What You Can’t Do

It’s important to understand what you can’t do with an image covered by copyright. Here’s a full list:

  • You cannot copy the image
  • You cannot rent, lend or issue copies of the work to the public
  • You cannot perform, broadcast or show the work in public
  • You cannot adapt the work
  • You cannot upload offline content to the internet

Moral Rights

It’s also worth noting, a creator has numerous moral rights. This includes the right to be identified as the author as well as the right to object to derogatory treatment. Always consider these when using a piece of work which isn’t your own.

What Does This Mean to You?

When you post an image on social media, you are broadcasting it to the public. If you do not possess authorisation to share it, you are breaching copyright laws. Social media has led to a steep rise in users publicly sharing personally created images. You cannot use any of these images without the approval of the creator. The notion that images shared on social media are free from copyright is a misconception.

What Do Social Media Platforms Say About Image Rights?

This information can be found in the terms and conditions when first joining a social media platform. We have summarised the four main channels and their policies, below: 

What Does Twitter Say About Copyright?

Here’s Twitter’s stance on copyright:

“Twitter will respond to reports of alleged copyright infringement, such as allegations concerning the unauthorised use of a copyrighted image as a profile or header, allegations concerning the unauthorised use of a copyrighted video or image upload through our media hosting services, or Tweets containing links to allegedly infringing materials.”

They go on to say: 

“Twitter’s response to notices of alleged copyright infringement may include the removal or restriction of access to allegedly infringing material. If we remove or restrict access to user content in response to a notice of alleged infringement, Twitter will make a good faith effort to contact the affected account holder with information concerning the removal or restriction of access, including a full copy of the takedown notice, along with instructions for filing a counter-notification.”

What Does Facebook Say About Copyright?

Here’s Facebook’s copyright policy:

“Under Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and Community Standards, you can only post content to Facebook if it doesn’t violate the intellectual property rights of another party. The best way to help make sure that the content you post to Facebook doesn’t violate copyright law is to only post content that you’ve created yourself.”

“If you repeatedly post content that infringes someone else’s intellectual property rights, your account may be disabled or your Page removed under Facebook’s repeat infringer policy. Your ability to post photos or videos may be limited, and you could also lose access to certain features or functionality on Facebook. The actions taken under the policy may depend on the nature of the reported content and where it was posted.” 

What Does Instagram Say About Copyright?

Here’s Instagram’s rules on copyright and image rights:

“If you’re not sure that you are legally authorised to use the content, do not post it on Instagram. Posting copyrighted content without permission might be a violation of the law. If you’ve already posted it, you should remove it from Instagram.”

“According to Instagram’s Terms of Use, people on Instagram may not post copyrighted content to Instagram unless they own or are allowed to post the copyrighted content. If someone has shared your original work (example: a photo you took) without your permission, you may want to seek legal guidance to find out if your rights have been infringed.”

What Does LinkedIn Say About Copyright?

Here’s more detail on copyright from LinkedIn: 

“LinkedIn respects the intellectual property rights of others and desires to offer a platform which contains no content that violates those rights. Our User Agreement requires that information posted by Members be accurate, lawful and not in violation of the rights of third parties.”

“Please note that whether or not we disable access to or remove content, LinkedIn may make a good faith attempt to forward the written notification, including the complainant’s contact information, to the Member who posted the content and/or take other reasonable steps to notify the Member that LinkedIn has received notice of an alleged violation of intellectual property rights or other content violation.

It is also our policy, in appropriate circumstances and in our discretion, to disable and/or terminate the accounts of Members, or groups as the case may be, who infringe or repeatedly infringe the rights of others or otherwise post unlawful content.”

What Does This Actually Mean?

To summarise, each platform explains that copyright is an issue taken seriously. If a party feels infringed, the social media platform will take action. To put it simply, social media sharing is not exempt from copyright laws.

What Are Image Licences?

There are plenty of sites which offer vast libraries of stock images that are available to use. These sites require you to purchase a licence which gives you permission to use an image in a certain way. Unfortunately, this too can be confusing. There are numerous different types of licence. Just because you’ve paid money and been given an image in return, it doesn’t mean you can use it in any way you wish to. There are rules and regulations linked with each image licence.

What Types of Image Licences Are There?

When purchasing images, there are three key types of licence you need to understand. You must understand the parameters of each licence and their restrictions before using an image. The three key types are:

  • Royalty-Free
  • Rights Managed
  • Extended/Enhanced Licences

Royalty-Free Image Licence

Royalty-Free images are not free! You still need to purchase a licence. Royalty-Free is the most cost-effective type of licence you can find. You simply pay for the initial licence and no additional royalties fees will incur to the agency or image owner. The problem that arises with this is that anyone else can pay the licence fee and use the same image. This is not an exclusive agreement. Once you pay the licence fee, you can usually use Royalty-Free images as often as you please.

Rights-Managed Image Licence

Rights-Managed images are usually exclusive in their usage. These are often customised to your needs or preferences. This means your licence will run for a set length of time, in a geographical region and with a limited distribution volume. With these images, you usually have the freedom to tailor your licence to your intended use. Due to the exclusivity, these images are often more expensive than Royalty-Free images. It’s often possible to review the usage history of an image like this before purchasing a licence. This is a common choice for large companies.

Extended/Enhanced Image Licence

This is very similar to a Royalty-Free image licence. Many Royalty-Free images often have certain restrictions, these are usually related to the distribution/reproduction volume and resale use. With Extended/Enhanced images, these restrictions are usually relaxed. As the Extended/Enhanced rights agreement often differs, ensure you are aware of what’s included. 

Restrictions & Vital Licence Information

Even if you buy the rights to an image, you are not the copyright owner. The original photographer/creator will remain the image owner – you simply have the right to use it.

It’s worthwhile learning the caveats to your licence. This may include prohibiting the use of the image in sensitive contexts, promoting a brand, modifying the design or attaining any commercial gain. Always read the small print and take the time to understand what your specific licence allows.

Best Paid Stock Photo Sites

Here are a few of the best stock photo sites:

  • Shutterstock – Subscription & On-Demand plans available
  • iStock – From the people behind Getty images, subscription & flexible plans available
  • StockPhotoSecrets – Both monthly & yearly plans available
  • Fotolio – From Adobe, this is another high-quality stock image site with subscription and PAYG options. 

What Are Creative Commons Images?

Creative Commons allows users to make their images available for public use without the need to request permission or purchase a licence. There are numerous types of Creative Commons licence so it’s worth understanding what you can and can’t do with each one.

CC0 Licence (CC0)

This allows the user to distribute, copy and modify an image. This can be done for commercial purposes and does not require you to give attribution to the creator.  

Attribution Licence (CC BY)

This allows you to distribute, modify and add upon a piece of work. This can be done for commercial ventures but you must credit the original creator. 

Attribution-ShareAlike Licence (CC BY-SA)

This lets you modify an image, even for commercial purposes, but you must credit the original source and licence the new creation under the same terms. This means all new works based on your creation will then have the same licence and so on. This is the licence commonly used by Wikipedia.

Attribution-NoDerivs Licence (CC BY-ND)

This allows you to use and distribute an image for both commercial and non-commercial uses but it must be unchanged and credited to the original creator.

Attribution-NonCommercial Licence (CC BY-NC)

This licence allows the use and modification of an image providing it’s for non-commercial purposes. 

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Licence (CC BY-NC-SA)

Pictures with this licence can be used and modified for non-commercial use as long as you credit the original creator.

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Licence (CC BY-NC-ND)

This is the most restrictive of the CC licences. This only permits users to download your images and share them with others as long as they are credited and not used commercially.

Where Can I Find Free Images?

There are plenty of sites out there which offer high-quality, explosive images needed to fuel your marketing campaign for free. It’s important to check each site’s individual terms before using an image commercially. Here are some of our favourite sites to use.


With over 100,000 images to choose from, all completely free, Pikwizard is a great image resource for anyone looking for high-quality images. The site is particularly good if you’re looking for images of people, which can be difficult to find on most stock image sites. 


StockSnap is a great tool for any company seeking CC0 images. Here you can find powerful high quality, high-resolution images added daily. The site curates the best stock images on the internet to reduce the hassle and concern of finding the perfect picture. 

Negative Space

Negative Space offers a broad range of high-quality images available for personal and commercial use without restrictions. The site’s category system makes finding the ideal image a seamless process.


The brainchild of photographer Vicktor Hanacek, Picjumbo allows you to use these attractive images for both personal and commercial purposes. There are paid premium options available, though the free site offers plenty of top choices.


Unsplash is one of our favourite free stock image sites. It’s become a source of inspiration The images are unique, stylish and fresh and have become a source of inspiration for millions of creators worldwide. You could browse the collection for hours without finding a bad photograph. 


If you’re looking for free images with personality, this is your site. All photos are taken by Ryan McGuire and radiate his unique, quirky style. This is a stock image site like no other.


Offering a range of videos and photos shared by talented creators. This colourful site incorporates current trends and movements into their images.

What Are The Penalties for Breaching Copyright?

Here’s what you need to know…

 Only the copyright owner, their legal representative or someone in possession of the exclusive licence is able to contact you about any possible infringement.

Depending on the severity, you could be liable to pay a fine of up to £50,000 or the much less likely alternative of a prison sentence. 

The usual procedure is that a copyright owner will write to you claiming compensation. This letter will usually threaten legal action in the event the claim isn’t settled amicably. Citizens Advice points out that this is a ‘letter before action’. This means it’s the beginning of legal proceedings and should be dealt with seriously.

 If you’ve been sent a letter such as this, it’s strongly recommended to seek legal advice. If you’re a startup/SME which can’t necessarily afford legal advice, Citizens Advice can help you with the following:

  • Determining whether the letter is genuine
  • Finding more information on the alleged infringement
  • Responding to the letter (either admit or deny the claim)
  • Assessing whether the damages payment is considered reasonable
  • Negotiate with the copyright owner to settle out of court
  • What to do when being taken to court

What to do if you’ve Infringed Copyright  

Should I Pay Compensation?

The owner of the copyright can request a compensation payment for any profit they’ve lost as a result of your actions. This can be very difficult to measure. If they request a settlement amount, ask how the figure is justified and calculated. You should be provided with an in-depth break down of any payment requested.

Citizens Advice offer this guidance:

“If you only downloaded or uploaded a copyrighted work and no money changed hands, courts are unlikely to consider that you have benefited financially from the infringement. You should therefore reject demands for additional damages on that basis.” 

They also go on to say:

“If you were unaware of the fact you were committing a copyright infringement, you should explain this to the copyright owner and reject their demands for additional damages for flagrancy. This is because a lack of knowledge about what you were doing can shield you from flagrancy claims.”

Account of Profit

An account of profit is a key factor in any commercial copyright infringement claim, this is usually dealt with by civil or criminal courts. It’s the responsibility of the copyright owner to prove that you’ve profited from an infringement. If you haven’t, you should make this known from the outset. If you receive letters that inaccurately discuss an account of profit, it’s essential to inform the copyright owner that you haven’t actually profited. 

Denying the Claim

You have the right to deny a claim of infringement. Even if you have infringed, you can reject a settlement if you feel it’s too much.

It’s perfectly acceptable to let the claim settle in court. This may be your desired option if you don’t believe you’ve committed an infringement or believe the settlement sum is inappropriate. It’s worth remembering, if a court rules against you they may force you to pay additional damages (legal costs, flagrant infringement compensation, etc.)

Becoming embroiled in a conflict concerning copyright infringement can be highly stressful. If you feel pressured, threatened or harassed, you may wish to report the issue to Trading Standards. 

This Isn’t Legal Advice

This article is intended to offer guidance and assistance about copyright infringement. All information mentioned here is accurate at the date of publishing. Remember, this is not legal advice. Every circumstance is different. If you’re unsure, seek assistance from a qualified legal professional.

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