Finances & Money

Blogging Tip: Using images without authorization

In 2007, I hit it big on when they featured Stacie’s Frugal Lunch article. I was elated, until I got an email from the owner of an image I used.

I wrote about the whole experience in “A star for a day. What I learned“, but basically I grabbed an image off Flickr and threw it into my post. I really had no idea what copyright law pertained to these files, or Creative Commons and attributions meant. I just saw a picture that fit well and used it, thinking “no one will find out. Only a few dozen people even read my site each week, and they’re mostly family and friends!”. Well I didn’t figure on a major site picking up the article, much less reposting that same photo I used in their own article!

So while the owner of the content probably would never have found my use of her image, Lifehacker and other Gawker sites (like were taking heat from the Flickr community for using their images without proper attribution (hence why Consumerist eventually created their own Flickr photo pool). Since Flickr users were on the lookout, they spotted that photo and traced it back to me.

While the owner was pleasant and understanding of my n00biness, I felt awful. I was caught and I escaped with just a warning. Whether the artist would or could have sued me is a question I don’t care to ask, but I’d like you, fellow bloggers, to be aware of what you’re doing with images. It may be a big pain in the butt to make sure the license on the image allows you to use it, plus link back to the owner appropriately or even email them for approval, but it’s your butt on the line if you don’t. Heck, there’s a number of online photo communities that sell their photos for $1 or less (chime in if you use them and can recommend any).

If you recall, I posted 50 tips for New Bloggers a while back. All those tips still apply as I tried to write it as a “timeless piece”. If you look at tip #38, you’ll see this piece of advice again.

A New Personal Experience with Copyright Infringement

And don’t think that just painting the picture a different color will make it “your own”. I originally had a different lightbulb in my logo, but with different colors than the original (I painted it the blue and green). However, after this crisis with Flickr, I created my own lightbulb to avoid ANY conflict of rights.

Why is this coming up now? Well a fellow blogger (who I met in person) had his artwork stolen by another PF blogger. The owner notified the blogger and said he can use it, but he wants a link back. Instead of removing or attributing the graphic properly, the blogger just changed the colors. I don’t think that’s fair to my friend, but I’m considerate enough not to “out” the violating blogger here. You know who you are, and the issue is between you two to resolve.

Personally, if someone stole my lightbulb and used it to make money on their site (e.g. improving the look of the site to draw more traffic), then I would be extremely upset. While I’m against using the law needlessly, I wouldn’t be against filing a DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) infringement notice with that site’s host, if the site owner refused to cooperate. I’ve done this with various scrapers and have successfully taken down a half-dozen sites to-date.

So be careful with the images and content you use on your sites. Don’t think that just because you only get a few hits a day that no one will find out. And put yourself in the shoes of the artist. If you spent hours or days putting together an amazing photo or graphic, wouldn’t you want some credit, or at least someone asking if they can use your stuff?

About the author

Clever Dude


  • Let me add that it is no defense to copyright infringement that you copied protected artwork then did something like “changed the colors.” That’s called creating a derivative work and only the owner of the copyright in the original work is allowed to do that.

  • Hi there,

    I’ve been reading your and several other financial blogs for several months and continue to check daily. Thanks for all of the tips, advice, experience. Just wanted to comment on this entry. I remember lifehacker had an entry about stock photos, so I went there to check it out. You might want to look at the link below for your future image needs. Hopefully you won’t have to worry anymore.

    Have a great day!

  • I remember reading your original post when I started blogging — excellent advice. For post images, I use a bookmark that takes me directly to a Flickr search restricted to “attribution only” images so that I’m not tempted by any other images.

    It’s a shame that someone would steal an image like that and try to get away with it simply by changing colors. Mr. ToughMoneyLove is, of course, correct on the legal grounds as I understand it, but it also just seems like a wrong thing to do — especially to another blogger!

  • That’s one of the reasons I don’t use pix on my blog – except for those that I take myself (of which there aren’t too many). Yeah, pictures would improve the look and feel, but I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyrigts or to go through the hassle of attribution or seeking permission.

  • WOW….

    I never knew all this! I wonder if any of my pics are in violation? I give attribution, but apparently that isn’t enough sometimes.

    Why the HECK would anyone post their pics on flickr if they didn’t want them shared (with proper shout-outs posted)? Do any photographers actually make money off Flickr? I can see making money on other sites that allow you to purchase the pic, but I have never noticed it on flickr?

    Crazy stuff

  • @My Journey: There’s different levels of copyright per the Commons thing, and Flickr was set up as a photo display site. The people taking the photos may use it to showcase their work, but keep all rights to it, in order to be picked up for paying jobs. Others might let you use their photos because they’re generous, so they use the attribution-only level.

    The attribution thing is two-fold:
    1. To give them some props for taking a good photo
    2. To link back to them and give their other work more exposure.

    And then there are people who just use Flickr as a personal photo album and don’t know what Creative Commons even is.

  • When I use images I filter on Flickr for commercial Creative Commons licensed images. If you want to change the colours (or whatever) you need to only use images that allow derivative works.

    Everything I write on the internets can easily be stolen, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for someone to do so. Similarly with images.

  • You really should look into purchasing microstock images for your website. Photographers are making less and less money everyday, which the equipment remains incredibly expensive. They are really suffering in this economy. You only have to spend a few bucks for a microstock image and its yours for life, plus you’ll be supporting a struggling photography–a very worthy cause in my book. Don’t be too “clever” and start paying for some content. It’s a good way to help the little guy and the economy.

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