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Photo Usage, Copyright Infringement and You – How Not to Be a Thieving D-bag (Part 1)

Photo of a plate of gnocchi and beefImage courtesy of Finger, Fork & Knife

This is not my photo. Actually none of the photos in this post are my own. Almost every image was sourced from the Internet, downloaded directly from a website, modified to suit my needs and then uploaded to my blog for this post, all without costing me a cent.

However, unlike many others, I did so while respecting the rights of the copyright holder. Unlike a lot of them, I am not a copyright-infringing, photo-thieving douche bag.

To be fair, a lot of people who infringe on other people’s copyright don’t intend to be thieving douche bags either and likely do so out of ignorance or due to misconceptions they hold. The thing is, it’s not hard to get access to photos for free in a way that is both legally and morally right.

Photo of an espresso machine making coffee.

Image courtesy of Abstract Gourmet

There are generally two ways of getting access to photos for free:

  • Requesting permission from the owner directly
  • By usage rights granted by certain copyright licenses

This post, Part 1 of a two part series, will examine the topic of requesting permission directly from the copyright owner.


Before we begin, it might be prudent to touch on some of the misconceptions regarding the copyright of a photo. This article on the top 9 misconceptions about image copyright does a good job covering the major misconceptions that most people hold.

One common misconception from the list I see quite often is that people believe that if they give you credit for your image (with or without a clickable link) or your watermark is clearly visible on your image then they don’t need to seek your permission to use the photo. As the article states “While this is a nice gesture…it doesn’t release you from liability under copyright laws”.

A good rule of thumb to follow is if there isn’t a license clearly stating your usage rights or you don’t have permission from the owner, then the photo is not available for use. While this doesn’t apply in all cases e.g. fair use, if you’re uncertain of whether or not you have permission to use the photo, it never hurts to ask.

Photo of a breakfast plate

Image courtesy of talk&spoon

Requesting Permission

I received an email one morning from a photo editor looking to use some of my photos for their online publication. In exchange, they offered credit for the photo and a link back to my blog. After checking out their website, I was happy to give them permission to use these photos. A few emails were sent back and forth but in about a day after the original email was sent, they had my photos up on their site. All it had cost them was time to write three emails.

Three emails doesn’t seem like much but there was probably more work involved having to find the images, contact other people and so forth. As to how much time and effort that would all require, I had no idea. So, I decided to take a walk in their shoes to find out for myself.

With the help of some blog lists, around 30 blogs were examined for possible photos to use. To minimise bias, blogs of people I knew were off-limits as they may be more inclined to give permission than to someone they don’t know.

From the 30 blogs, 10 images were selected for use. Each of the blogs were checked for licenses and usage right statement and of the blogs that didn’t automatically grant usage rights, the remaining bloggers were contacted via email. In the instance that a response wasn’t received, a reminder email was sent in case it was missed the first time around.

Some things to note regarding my experience of requesting permission to use other people’s photos:

  • The whole process, from search for photos until the first round of emails were sent, had taken a little over 2 hours, out of which only 20 mins was spent on emails.
  • Permission of use was granted for 9 out of 10 images
    • 7 of these images were granted permission within a day – 2 immediately through licenses and 5 via email.
    • The remaining 2 were granted permission after a reminder email was sent.
  • 100% of the people that responded gave permission to use their photos once they understood the purpose of the article and the context in which the photo was to be used.
  • Only 1 person did not respond. However, after checking their blog, it looks like they’ve been inactive for a couple of years anyhow.

Photo of a bar

Image courtesy of The Lamstock

Two hours of work to have access to use seven photos within a 24 hours period with a high response rate in exchange for a photo credit with link back and no money. That’s a pretty good deal given the kind of quality photos you could potentially have access to. Not only that, by taking the time to make contact and showing respect for someone’s work, you could start to build an ongoing, mutually-beneficial relationship.

If two hours seems like a long time, bear in mind that the photographer who produced that photo had likely spent considerably more time in the production of the photo – travel to the venue or setup of the studio, taking the photo and processing the images. That’s not even factoring in the skill and expertise required to take such a photo, let alone the cost of the photography gear, lighting, transportation, food, props etc.

If that still doesn’t sway you and you’d rather not to take the time to seek permission, think instead of the potential time spent dealing with takedown requests, social media backlash, or in a worst case scenario, going to court over the matter. A couple of hours starts to sound cheap by comparison.

Photo of grilled corn

Image courtesy of Sweet and Sour Fork


Based on my experience on both sides of the fence, here are a few tips that might help you save some time and get you access to the photos you’re after:

Check the About page and sidebar of the blog. You might find that you may already have permission to use the photos (given certain conditions are met) without the need to contact the owner. More on this in Part 2.

While you’re there, if you’re able to find the person’s name, it helps to address the email to them personally rather than using something generic like “Hi” without the name, or worse still “Hey blogger”. I don’t think you’d appreciate it if they’d responded back with “Hi PR” or “Dear Photo Editor”, if they bothered to respond at all.

To minimise the number of emails sent back and forth, be clear on:

  • Which photo(s) you wish to use and from which article/post (link would be handy).
  • What the intended use of the photo is, such as the contents of the article or page and the context in which the photo is to be used. This one is particularly important as most of the people I contacted wanted to know this information and did not grant permission until it was made clear.
  • Specify any requirements you might have e.g. minimum resolution size, include/exclude watermarks etc.
  • What you’re willing to offer in exchange for the use of their photos. At the very least it should include attribution (credit) for the photo as well as a clickable link back to their blog.

Don’t pitch the email like you’re doing us a favour. You’re not.

Lastly, if you do not receive a response after a reminder email, assume that you do not have permission to use the photo.

I hope that this post helps to illustrate that the barriers in obtaining access to good quality photos may not be as high as you might have thought and that not a lot of time and effort is required in order to do so.

If you feel that contacting the owner for permission is still too much effort, make sure to check out Part 2 in this series which will explore Creative Commons licenses and how you can obtain free photos in a legal and moral way without the need for prior contact.

Special thanks to Kate, Matt, Ellen, Brenda and Ming for giving permission to use your photos for this post.

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{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Tina @ bitemeshowme May 20, 2013, 9:02 am

    Thanks for this Simon, it’s definitely been a great read and looking forward to part 2.

    • Simon May 20, 2013, 12:05 pm

      Thanks Tina. Glad to hear it :)

  • Tina@foodboozeshoes May 20, 2013, 9:07 am

    Great post, Simon. Helpful hints that both bloggers and those on the other side should know. Love to know your thoughts on approaching those using your images without permission where required.

    • Simon May 20, 2013, 1:05 pm

      Thanks Tina. I hope the next post is just as helpful. Watch this space! :)

  • Simon Food Favourites May 20, 2013, 10:13 am

    a very helpful post for those looking to use other people’s images. i’m suspecting your amazing photography blog would have been one of the appeals for the blogs that you approached to be happy to have you use their images for an educational post. other unknown businesses wanting to use images for free might not be as lucky but it still shows the process one should at least attempt to go through in using someone else’s images. i look forward to reading your part 2.

    • Simon May 20, 2013, 10:05 pm

      As I’d indicated in the post, the most critical thing that allowed access to most of the photos was an understanding of the context in which the photo was to be used. Very few people automatically gave permission for the use of the photos. If you clicked on the attribution links, you’d find that these blogs stand up perfectly fine on their own merits and the so-called “appeal” you allude may not have factored in as much as you might have otherwise implied. If anything, they’re doing me a favour and for that I acknowledge and appreciate their contribution.

      With the right subject matter and a sincere and honest approach, I wouldn’t be surprised if similar results were experienced by others.

  • milkteaxx May 20, 2013, 11:15 am

    thanks for all the tips simon! ive learnt so much and i look forward to part 2 of this post!

    • Simon May 20, 2013, 1:06 pm

      You’re welcome. Hope you enjoy the next post as well :)

  • talkandspoon May 20, 2013, 8:51 pm

    Great post! Really insightful read. Looking forward to Part 2!

    • Simon May 20, 2013, 9:45 pm

      Thanks and thank you for the use of your photo :)

  • Sonia May 20, 2013, 10:09 pm

    That was an excellent read, Simon! Interesting, informative and well written.

    • Simon May 21, 2013, 8:29 am

      Thanks for the glowing feedback. Much appreciated :)

  • Alana May 21, 2013, 4:47 pm

    “Don’t pitch the email like you’re doing us a favour. You’re not.” LOLOLOL, too true.

    Great post, I’m very much interested in intellectual property and your image sourcing experiment speaks volumes. To me, and all other content makers, this sort of courtesy is obvious, so I hope this article reaches the attention of those who are… uhh, lacking in online etiquette. You’ve done the blogosphere a world of good by posting this.

    • Simon May 21, 2013, 5:54 pm

      That’s very kind of you to say. I hope that this serves as a useful resource for those well-meaning folk wanting to do the right thing.

  • Tash May 22, 2013, 12:17 pm

    A great article which I am sure will be helpful to many, with great photos to boot. I liked your ‘experiment’.

    Welcome back Simon!

    • Simon May 22, 2013, 3:32 pm

      Thank Tash. More coming soon :)

  • Gaby May 26, 2013, 11:38 am

    Good info, Simon, thanks for that. BTW, you managed to pick the most appetite-inducing photos for this article!

    • Simon May 27, 2013, 12:53 am

      Hehe. You’re welcome, on both counts :)

  • Sara @bellyrumbles May 31, 2013, 12:00 pm

    Great article Simon, looking forward to part 2

    • Simon May 31, 2013, 2:04 pm

      Thanks Sara! Part 2 should be coming soon.

  • cook suck June 3, 2013, 12:45 pm

    the unfortunate thing is the people who most need to read this never will

    • Simon June 3, 2013, 1:09 pm

      To begin with, perhaps. Though, it’s harder for them to read material that isn’t out there in the first place. That’s not to say that this hasn’t been covered elsewhere but the more exposure, the better.

      Also, for any infringers that I do come across, this post serves as a point to direct them to to help educate them on the matter. If they still choose to disregard copyright at least they can’t do so out of ignorance and there are several avenues that one can pursue to rectify the situation. Material for another post :)

  • Lizzy (Good Things) June 3, 2013, 8:59 pm

    Great post… and, as the person above said, let’s hope that it is shared far and wide so that the people who need to read it, do.

    • Simon June 4, 2013, 10:13 am

      I hope so too, and thanks :)

  • Craig Hind June 4, 2013, 8:36 pm

    Excellent post Simon. As a photographer I fully agree with all of your sentiments stated here.

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