Who owns that photo?

Authors sometimes provide photos that they found on the Web. The photos may be in an open source (that is, publicly available) but not in the public domain (publicly owned). Photos in the public domain (just about all government photos) may be freely used, but we should still give credit.

If you work for a book or magazine publisher, you probably have an author contract specifying that the author has the right to all content submitted: the author is providing original material and has permission to use anything else submitted for publication.

If you are working for a company or nonprofit organization, your writers may be fellow employees who have only vague, and possibly wrong, ideas about photo use. They may supply photos they found online and not know where they got them. After you read these writers the riot act, letting them know that all content is protected by copyright from the time of its creation, you still may need to know where a photo came from and whether you are free to use it.

I discovered (actually, my manager showed me) that Google’s image search can look for a specific photo. Put your cursor over the little camera icon and you’ll see a popup message that says, “Search by image.” One of the choices is “Upload an image.” Choose an image from your computer and upload it, and Google will instantly give you results showing where the image, or something similar, is found online.

(If the photo the author supplied is embedded in a document, you can usually right-click on it and get an option to save the picture somewhere on your computer. Then you can upload it for the Google image search.)

I’ve used this a few times with excellent results. If an author found a photo on the web, then Google can usually find it too. Often I find that the photo has appeared on many websites, often uncredited, but a bit of clicking usually has led me to a site where the photo source is given. For example, one piece I edited recently included a photo that had appeared on someone’s blog, and the writer had credited that blog as the source of the photo. There was nothing on the blog, however, to indicate that the blog author had taken the photo. Google, however, showed that the photo had appeared on a newspaper website too, and there the photo was credited to the Associated Press. I was able to tell the author that the photo was owned by the Associated Press and could be used only after obtaining permission and paying for it.

This function in the Google image search is great for identifying the actual sources of photos that authors found and assumed were free.


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