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“Google images are all in the public domain”

Copyright in graphic design

We’ve all been there, there’s no need to paint you a detailed picture, client chooses to source their own images and their way of doing this is to punch in what they want into a Google images search, find an image, send you a link, you explain the image is copyrighted and cannot be used, client kicks up a fuss, you end up sourcing legitimate images.

Sound familiar? It happens here… a lot. People in general don’t understand that images bought up in a Google image search are not always in the public domain and they are certainly not always free. Thinking that all images pulled out by a Google image search are up for grabs would mean that any image on the internet is free to use, and that simply is not the case. You wouldn’t walk into your local gallery, pick up a painting, take it home, re-frame it and not pay for it would you? The exact same principal can be applied online. If you have not created the image yourself, it is not yours to use and it is stealing.

Just because an image doesn’t have a copyright symbol watermarked on it doesn’t mean you can use it, just because an image comes up several times in the search does not mean you can use it and just because other people have used the image does not mean you can use it. If you want to know if you can use the image, track down the creator and ask. I know it’s not always an easy task, but it is a lot easier than being taken to court and being sued for copyright infringement. And don’t try the old “If I get caught I’ll take it off the website straight away, so there’ll be no problem”, there will still be a big problem as by this point it is way too late!

This leads me onto an interesting point, what if a client sends you images that they swear ‘on their mothers life’ that they purchased legitimately and it turns out they were indeed pinched, who is liable when this ‘accident’ is caught? Is it the innocent designer in deep doo? After all, they were the ones who created the design! Or is it the clients neck that’s on the line as they swore that the images were legit? To combat this we have a clause in our T’s & C’s stating that all images supplied by the client MUST have the necessary permissions granted to be used. That way, dearest client, if someone finds their image on your website / brochure / poster (delete as appropriate) then, sweetheart, any legal fees will be forwarded to your door. We ain’t taking responsibility for your thievery (or at least words to that affect!).

To be fair to the clients with whom I have encountered this problem, it is a lack of knowledge and expertise in this area. In shops we have CCTV signs warning us we are being watched so don’t steal anything. However on the web we don’t have a great deal of guidance or guidelines telling us what we can and can’t do. There isn’t a ‘these images may be copyrighted so please don’t use them unless you seek the creators permission folks’ sign above the images when you do a Google image search, so users assume they are free. So therefore I understand that as a part of our job, we should educate the client and guide them through the wrongs and rights of working on line.

So it’s settled… more education on copyright for all!

However, I have to ask the question, as a graphic designer do you feel confident uploading work to the internet and it not being stolen?

Amanda at Truly Ace recently blogged about Rachael Taylor a very talented illustrator who had her work replicated and placed on Shutterstock for re-sale, potentially damaging her whole business – You can read the full blog post here and I urge you to do so.

I’ve also recently read Elizabeth Halford’s article on Digital Photography school, again explaining how a photo of her son was cropped, printed onto a canvas and resold throughout the UK without her permission. Again an interesting article and I urge you to read it here.

These tales are extremely frustrating and are enough to make you think you will never publish anything to the web… ever! However, that would be ridiculous and quite plainly cutting ones nose off to spite ones face. The web is here to stay and we need to ensure it is a safe place for those who are uploading information and for those who are downloading it for in the case of Rachael Taylor’s story, the hundreds (or maybe more) people who purchased what they thought was a royalty free illustration have too been hurt.

What can we do though?! If we publish work to the internet we risk it being stolen, if we don’t upload how will we ever be found? We can always watermark our work, however as in Elizabeth Halford’s case work can be cropped to rid the piece of it’s watermark, so one would have to watermark their artwork to oblivion, leaving it hardly recognisable to ensure it wasn’t pinched. Should we have to go to this length to protect designs from theft?

I go back to my earlier statement, education for the masses! The more people writing, educating clients, making these horror stories known the more knowledgeable we become. This won’t happen over night but eventually people will stop using Google as a free image bank and source images legitimately. It is true copyright is a mine field but there are some great articles out there explaining it, start with Smashing Magazine – Copyright Explained: I May Copy It, Right?.

So let’s start discussing, have you ever had any of your work stolen? Is copyright something that you worry about as a designer? Do you find clients pulling images from Google image searches to use in projects? If you do let us know how you handle the situation?

Posted by Lu

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Posted on Wednesday, July 21st, 2010 at 7:40 pm
Posted In Blogging, Freelancing, Graphic Design | Tags: , ,

3 Responses to ““Google images are all in the public domain””

  • Suzanne Gilmour says:

    If my teacher-preparation students are using google images in their papers/materials for children do they need to hunt down the sources for these?

    Thank you.

  • Steve says:

    Hi Suzzane,

    I would think the line is slightly more blurred for educational material but certainly for anything commercial permission should be obtained by the owner.


  • Matthew payne says:

    Ive actually seen it happen alot. I know alot of animation students who “barrow” characters to put in their portfolio.

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