Everything You Need To Know About Copyright And Licensing For Print

Everything You Need To Know About Copyright And Licensing For Print

Read Time: 6 Minutes


30 Nov 2017

Update: 17th May 2023

When you’re printing anything, be it business cards or huge A0 posters, images can make or break the design. A high quality, eye-catching image will always improve any artwork – but do you know how to avoid copyright problems?

If you’re using your own designs, then keep on doing what you do! However, if you ever use stock imagery from websites, you need to know what you are – and aren’t – allowed to do with these images.


What Is Copyright?

As soon as you take a picture, or write something down, you own the copyright to it. It’s yours to do with as you please – but if someone else wants to use what you’ve created, you need to give them permission first. They don’t have to pay you for it, if you don’t want them to – but you still need to say that they can use your work.

There is the exception of artistic homage, where a piece can be used if it is claimed to be in direct homage to the original, and/or no profit is gained from its use (depending on the context). It is, however, very difficult to prove that you have not plagiarised the work and best avoided if you want a simple life!


What Copyright Means For Print Marketing

Whether you’re designing a huge poster, a client presentation, or your latest business cards, it’s up to you to check that you have the right to use any images that you include.

If you’ve created the artwork yourself, you already own the copyright. However, if you’ve purchased an image from a stock photo library, you need to ensure proof of purchase is retained – to demonstrate that you have the right to use the image.

If you’ve used a free photo stock library such as Unsplash, Pixabay, or Pexels, these are creative commons licensed images, which can be freely used without attribution.

If you’ve just chosen an image from Google, step away from your design right now! Unless you can absolutely guarantee that you are allowed to use that image, either with written permission from the creator or with evidence of its existence on a reputable free stock image site, do not use it.

A seemingly innocuous image copy and paste job can quickly turn into you receiving formal cease and desist letters from the creator’s lawyer (or, famously, Getty).


How To Get Permission To Use Someone’s Image

If there’s a photo or an image out there that you really, just absolutely, must undoubtedly have as part of your printed marketing materials, there are ways you can use it.

First, track down the creator. Remember, this may not be the company whose website or print materials this image (or text) is on: they may have used a freelancer.

In that case, ask for the freelancer’s contact details via the company where you first saw the image you want. Explain that you wish to request copyright, and there shouldn’t be a problem with them forwarding your request on.

There is a tiny snag here, in that some companies will use a freelancer, but have a contract which relinquishes the designer of their copyright over the work to the customer who commissioned it. When that’s the case, the customer is likely to let you know – and you won’t be able to receive permission (unless you ask really, really nicely and offer up some money).

If you can’t locate the original creator, there is one more avenue to try. Using Google Image Search, paste the image (or image URL) into the search bar, and see what comes up. You may find that the artwork is available in a stock image library – whether paid or free – which means you can use it according to the terms on that website.


Understanding Creative Commons License Types

The final, most preferable, thing you may find is that the image is available on one of the many free creative commons license stock image libraries on the web. If not, you’re likely to find something very close to that image on one of these libraries which you could use as an alternative!

There are still different license types, even under free creative commons licensing, so make sure you know what you’re downloading. Some websites, such as Unsplash, say that crediting the creator is preferable but not essential. Others may use a range of different licenses depending on the artist agreements.

There are four creative commons license types:

  1. Attribution: You need to credit the original creator in some way, but this credit does not mean the creator endorses your work.
  2. Share-A-Like: People can copy and distribute this work, and modify it, as long as they distribute it on the same terms (i.e., if they have modified it, they must allow others to modify their version).
  3. Non-Commercial: Anyone can use the artwork (or performance) for any non-commercial basis. Should they benefit commercially from the use of the image, the user must request written permission from the creator.
  4. No Derivatives: Anyone can use the work in question, but may only use and distribute it in its original form, without any modifications. Any modifications must be approved by the creator in writing.


Create Your Own

Of course, the best way to avoid any intentional or accidental copyright infringement is to always create your own artwork. It’s easy to say and less easy to implement, but if you regularly use stock photo libraries it might be worth considering creating your own library of copyrighted images… which you could then sell to these libraries for some extra cash on the royalties!


About the Author

Hi, I'm Yasmin, the Sales Manager at instantprint. My main aim is to support businesses to create the best print possible by offering tailored advice and quotes.