February 10th, 2020

Book Cover 101: A Quick Guide to Image Copyright Issues

by Melinda VanLone

Are you an indie author about to create or commission a cover? If so, most likely you'll be using images to design your latest best seller. Did you know that those images have copyrights? Even if you found them on the interwebs like litter on a street corner, they still have rights. It's that fact that gets a lot of authors in trouble.

It's never a good idea to pull an image directly off of a Google search because you can't be sure where it's coming from, who has the rights, whether they've released them, or whether they are still very much the property of the creator.

To keep yourself protected from potential legal action, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Discover images at reputable websites

If you're designing the cover yourself, use reputable stock photography sites and purchase the right to use the image. In a future blog post I'll go over the rights each site gives, and the pros and cons of each, but in the meantime here's a few reputable sites I recommend:

Pay attention to what rights you actually purchased 

Some sites sell you the right to use an image for personal reasons at one price, but charge a different price for commercial use. (Hint...you need commercial rights.)

Also take note of whether you're allowed to manipulate the image in any way. Most stock sites do grant you the right to tinker to your heart's desire, but a few don't. Be sure you adhere to whatever rules they set out for you. Some sites give you unlimited eBook reproduction but limit the number of print copies you can produce before requiring an "extended license."

When you purchase the image, I highly recommend saving a PDF of the license and storing it for future reference with the image/cover. 

Pass on by any image marked "for editorial use only." That means the image can't be used for personal or commercial purposes, which means you can't use it on a book cover. Those images are only used for magazine or news articles, and should never be manipulated (Photoshopped together with other images or retouched).

The buck stops with you

If you're hiring a designer to craft your cover for you, it's still ultimately your responsibility to make sure they've obtained the rights to the images they use to craft your cover, in the same way that if you hire an assassin you're still responsible for the murder they commit on your behalf. 

Most professional designers are well aware of the basic rights/rules, but some aren't. Don't be afraid to ask them where they purchased the image, and ask for a copy of the image license.

If they produced the image themselves (if, for instance, they are also a photographer and they used their own photography), then ask them to convey the rights to you in writing. There are boilerplate contracts you can use to convey the basic terms, just so there are no misunderstandings in the future.

Sometimes it seems silly to go through the motions of paperwork but trust me, should a lawsuit arise, you'll be glad you did it.

"Free" isn't worth it.

I avoid "free" sites because: 

1. The images are not great quality and they are overused. It's fine for a blog post or newsletter, not so fine for a book cover; and 2. The license is flawed.

Most free sites use a type of "Creative Commons" license which means yes you can use it for commercial use, but it does not guarantee that whoever posted the image to the site actually had the right to distribute the image, nor that they didn't violate privacy laws or property laws to obtain the image.

In other words, they may have infringed on someone else's rights...which makes you an accomplice if you use it. They also don't police the content at all, leaving you vulnerable.

The stock sites I've mentioned above do a certain amount of vetting of the photographers who post their images for use. There are statements and contracts which establish that they've obtained the model's permission, that they own the photo, etc. Which in turn gives you a certain level of protection you just don't get for free. 

In my next post, I'll go more in depth regarding the stock photography websites I've recommended and their painful-to-read rights. If you've been using a site that didn't make my list, please leave a note in the comments and I'll investigate it for you. 

Please note...I'm not a lawyer. I'm a graphic designer and an author. I have, however, spent years in the publishing industry handling images and dealing with the legal issues associated with using them, so I do have tips and advice that I hope helps you in your book covering quest. That said, when in doubt, please consult an actual lawyer or simply don't use the image.

Do you struggle with finding images? Have you ever had legal issues with photos? Melinda is ready for your questions down in the comments!

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About Melinda

Melinda VanLone writes urban fantasy, freelances as a graphic designer, and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and furbabies.

When she's not playing with her imaginary friends, you can find Melinda playing World of Warcraft, wandering aimlessly through the streets taking photos, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.

Her elementary fantasy series, House of Xannon, begins with Stronger Than Magic. And for more information on covers, visit BookCoverCorner.com.

24 responses to “Book Cover 101: A Quick Guide to Image Copyright Issues”

  1. LauraDrake says:

    I LOVE Pixabay - but only for web posts, etc. I buy cover photos from the others you listed.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Pixabay is one of my faves too. And Canva!

    • An interesting thing to note about Pixabay...it's mostly fine for blog posts and such, no worries there, but one of the things in their license should be considered: "Don't portray identifiable people in a bad light or in a way that is offensive. Don't use images with identifiable brands to create a misleading association with a product or service." Let's say you write erotica, and you use one of their images on your cover...and the model decides that's offensive. They don't want to be seen as someone who is into S&M, let's say. THAT could end up being a big problem. It's something I used to have to watch out for in the day job all the time. If there's even a hint that someone might object to how you used their body image, then it's best to purchase the image with the rights (and model releases) you need. For most of us, in blog posts, that's not going to be an issue at all. But on covers it could be. Just something to be aware of.

  2. Terry Odell says:

    I use Pixabay and Canva for my blog posts. I hire a reputable cover designer for my covers. I know of a (then) aspiring author who used to post "man candy" type pictures on her blog once a week, and got sued up the yin yang when a photographer saw his work there. My son's a photographer. He won't put any of his images on sites like Pinterest.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      That's so scary to think about, Terry. I know an author who was sued for images on her blog, to the tune of five figures, when she was still very new and it was dreadful.

    • It really is scary to think someone might sue you for something you didn't even know was wrong but it does happen all the time. Photographers are artists, and they make their living with photos...meaning they tend to get cranky when their work is used without some sort of compensation. The good news is there's plenty of stock sites she can use to get her eye candy from without having to worry about it! And most of them either offer a subscription, or run sales several times a year. Some even often a daily free pic.

  3. Great info. I've only needed images for web posts so far, and I use mostly Pixabay (and I do pay the artist for their free image anyway - it's good karma). But if I need to step out of my box, I'll know where to look.

  4. Dianne says:

    Melinda, thank you for this information. I picked a cover for a upcoming release. I read the small print, but now I'm nervous because the site isn't on your list. If you could check it out, I'd appreciate it. Thank you.

    https://www.reshot.com/photos/yellow-yellow-fruit-lemon-hand-girl-sweet-bank-nice-tasty-vegan-lemons_rs_GRA9K0

  5. Maggie Smith says:

    I'm curious - can any inage you find online be used on social media, i.e. Facebook or Instagram, for one time usage for a post/tweet or does copyright also apply here. I.e. movie poster to write about the Oscars for example.

    • Judy L Mohr says:

      Sorry to jump in here, but I had to answer Maggie's question. Even a one-time breach of copyright can be a problem. "Fair use" does not apply to social media. In terms of movie posters and images from the Oscars, some of those are actually in "public domain", but not all. If in doubt, err on the side of caution. It's just not worth the legal hassles.

    • Oh goodness...no! Just because it can be found in a Google search doesn't mean you have the right to use it. That said, if you're reviewing a movie in a blog post you CAN use the image of the movie poster, because that would be considered editorial use. That's a huge IF though. If you're just randomly using it or any piece of it (remember those are actors on those posters), and you aren't offering an opinion of the movie or acting...if you're trying to sell your own work with it...THEN it's a problem.

      • dholcomb1 says:

        If you have special review privileges for movies, you're usually given access to the posters and stock photos to use with the review.

        I review movies under the umbrella of studios associated with Disney--I have press access to early showings--and we're given a link to the posters, trailers, and photos. We also have to supply our review to the studio liaison by a certain time (varies) on release day.

        denise

  6. Eldred Bird says:

    Being a photographer, I've managed to avoid issues with my book covers by shooting the images myself. It also allows me to get exactly what I want instead of settling for what I can find. That being said, I have used stock images on a few of the covers for the e-versions for my short stories. I'm careful to get the images from reliable sources that allow free commercial use, but I make sure to read the fine print. Some only allow it as long as you give credit to the image owner.

    • As a designer and photographer I'm a huge fan of supplying my own images, but I do recognize most probably don't have the skill/will power to pull that off for covers. For blog posts the best and safest thing to do is grab your phone and take your own photos for sure. I may have to cover that in another blog post! Thanks for the idea!

  7. Great information!! I have a question that was not covered here. Does anyone know what the law says about using a photo one has taken with one's own camera of a historical site? Are there issues surrounding using that image?

    • There are laws...always heh. But mostly it surrounds where you were standing when you took the photo. The historical site itself, if it's in the US anyway, doesn't own copyright so you aren't violating it by taking a picture. That said, make sure your feet are on public property when you take a shot anywhere. In other words, shots taken inside a gym, let's say, or someone's home...you'd need their permission to use the image even though you took it. But outside on public spaces there's no expectation of privacy. It's why paparazzi aren't sued as often as you'd think they should be 😀 Again I'm no lawyer, but as far as I know in the US you're fine to use your own shots of historical landmarks, monuments, that sort of thing. It gets a little more gray area if it's a painting or a sculpture (since obviously those things are done by artists who did at some point own the rights)...if you were thinking of using someone else's artwork on your cover (and yes, even buildings can be considered art), even if you took the photo of it yourself, then you should do more research regarding who created it and whether or not the copyright on it has expired. OR if you need to see permission from a museum, etc. When in doubt...ASK! Ask the museum, the park service, or wherever you happen to be. A lot of people and places will happily give you their permission to use their stuff if you just ask and explain why you want it. ALL that said, my knowledge is limited to the US...every country will be different so if you're hailing from the UK it's best to ask someone over there for more specifics.

  8. ecellenb says:

    Great post! I have a friend who uses Canva for all of her eBook covers and they've turned out very well. I hired a graphic designer for my work. The cover is the first thing a reader looks at and a great cover makes a huge difference.

  9. […] designers fall into this category. These designers use photography from various stock sites (see my previous blog post for a list of good ones), and their Photoshop skills to create your cover. As you can imagine, the […]

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