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Are You Obtaining Words, Graphics, and Pictures Legally?

April 2010
By: Amanda Naugle and Jerry Thacker
Patty was working on the center's monthly newsletter. In desperate need of that perfect baby picture for the front cover, she ventured onto the Internet. The pregnancy resource center where she volunteered had limited financial resources. While she did not have problems obtaining copy because there were several good writers among the volunteers, how could she captivate her readers visually while keeping the cost of production to a minimum?

As Patty navigated to Google, she noticed a hyperlink for Google Images and began to search for baby pictures. Because she wanted to have pictures that would reproduce well, she looked for those with higher resolution (not the little thumbnail graphics that seem to anchor almost every hyperlink on the Internet). She began to review the many pictures that Google had retrieved that were on her screen. Then she saw it. It was the perfect baby picture for her newsletter.

Patty quickly copied the graphic and pasted it into her newsletter layout program. As she tabbed down to the word 'Save' on the menu bar, she congratulated herself on another well-done newsletter. It would catch peoples' attention and show readers what the ministry she was pouring her heart and time into was all about. It would help her communicate the center's vision to the board, staff, volunteers, and supporters that would receive her printed piece. Perhaps she could even use the picture on the center's website. That would be great!

Many creative people, such as Patty in this fictitious story, would not dream of stealing something from anyone. In fact, she would be much more likely to give of herself just as she was doing in contributing her time to produce the newsletter each month. Most people who volunteer to become involved in such a life-affirming ministry are givers, not takers. However, what she just did by taking the photo from the Internet and not knowing if she had the rights to use it could be considered an act of stealing the intellectual property of another according to U. S. copyright law.

Patty's graphic was not her 'original creation.' Nor did she take the picture. She had not obtained written permission (an email will do in most cases) from the copyright holder.


She did not purchase the right to use this cute baby picture that was sure to bring happy sighs from those who would see it. For the sake of convenience, and because she wanted a better-looking newsletter, Patty had used this graphic illegally. In doing so, she had put herself and her center at financial risk if the copyright holder decided to take legal action.

Many individuals do not realize that words, graphics, and pictures for both electronic and print media are protected by copyright from the time they are created. Even though the Internet is filled with free articles, pictures, and graphics that can be downloaded easily and used within your documents, it is best that you and your organization participate in safe use practices.

One way to keep from using illegal graphics is to use original graphics that you or someone in your center created. You'll also want to establish a process to make sure you have a clear right to use any graphic that you retrieve in a graphic design program that has a paper trail behind it.

If you do not have the ability to use original graphics, make sure you have written permission from the copyright holder to use his or her graphic. Of course, you could also purchase or rent what are called 'royalty free' images. About.com defines royalty free as follows:

"Clip art, images, graphics, photographs, art, music and other created content which may be offered to the public or individuals (normally for a specified amount of money) to be used in specified ways (terms of usage). The creator retains all copyrights and publishing rights. You may use and publish the clip art, images, and music per the specified terms of usage but may not be sold or distributed to a 3rd party.

Royalty free packages, collections, images or photos are not public domain. The creator retains copyright and all terms of usage must be followed when using these royalty free packages, collections, images, photos, music, etc." See http://webclipart.about.com/cs/msubmenuaz/g/royalty.htm)

Even clip art may be copyrighted. (http://webclipart.about.com/library/weekly/blcopyrights.htm)

The most important thing to know is that no longer is stock photography out of your budget range. With the creation of online royalty free distributors, you can purchase graphics or pictures for as low as $1 each. Two examples of online distributors that you might want to explore are iStockPhoto (http://www.istockphoto.com) and BigStockPhoto (http://www.bigstockphoto.com). Be sure to read their Terms of Use/Legal statement upon visiting their site. You need to honor their terms and stay within the permitted use guidelines.

As a director, staffer, secretary, or creative volunteer for your local pregnancy care center, you should ask yourself a few questions:

Where do the graphics and pictures for our publications, newsletters, websites, etc., come from?

Who owns the copyrights for these graphics or pictures?

Do we have permission to use the intellectual property in the manner in which we are presenting it?
Remember, electronic media found on the Internet is usually also legally copyrighted material. You would never dream of stealing from another individual. So, make sure you know how your organization obtains graphics or pictures. Protect the reputation and finances of your center by playing it safe in this area of communications.

Amanda Naugle, Director of Research and Technology for Right Ideas, Inc., is the Assistant Editor for At the Center. She can be reached at amanda@rightideas.us.

Jerry Thacker, B.A., M.A., is President of Right Ideas, Inc., and Publisher of At the Center. He can be reached at contact@rightideas.us

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