The Ethics of Using Online Photos

Posted by on Aug 16, 2017 in Ethics | 2 Comments

There’s a common misconception that you can use anyone’s photos that have been posted online if you give credit back to the photographer. Most people would argue that crediting the photographer will send traffic back to the source and the photographer will benefit from the exposure. What’s the harm? Should it not be considered a compliment that your work was singled out and shared? And by sharing, your photographs are seen by more people and therefore you gain a larger following – isn’t that a good thing?

A widely shared and copied image of mine on the web – ©Darwin Wiggett

Let’s look at an example. On July 18, one of my images was posted on Meanwhile in Canada’s Facebook page. Meanwhile in Canada’s purpose is “looking at the lighter side of life in Canada and Canadian Politics”.  My image was posted without my knowledge or permission but photo credit was given. The image has over 28,000 likes and over 8000 shares and over 1 million people follow the Meanwhile in Canada page. Impressive numbers and good exposure for my work wouldn’t you say? But did it translate to anything concrete for me? Looking at the number of visitors to my websites during the week the image was posted showed no change at all from the average number of visitors per week. There was also no change in our eBook sales, or signups for our photo courses. I had no requests for print sales and no inquiries about the image by email. I did not even have any new friend requests on Facebook that week. In short, the exposure did not translate into anything concrete. Generally, when people share your photo they get the benefit of your work to promote their brand and you rarely benefit at all (there are, of course, rare exceptions).

Meanwhile in Canada is a satirical site which makes commentary by blurring the line between truth and outrageousness (it does this well in many instances). Satire uses recognizable elements from the original work to mock something else or society in general and satire is considered a fair use of an original, copyrighted work under law. In the case of my photo there was no alteration to the essence of the image to evoke satire; the thrust of the post is a pretty picture to say “Canada is great” (in contrast to the running theme at Meanwhile in Canada that America is not great). Having my picture posted on Meanwhile in Canada’s Facebook page may suggest that I support the political and world view of its owner. In my work (photos and writing), I try to be apolitical. There might actually be harm to my brand by having my image posted on Meanwhile in Canada. I might offend my American audience. The point here is not to argue about harm or benefit but to recognize that when someone uses your photo or you use someone’s photo there’s always an agenda of promoting self-interest. In short, the person using the photo gains the most.

Shucks, thanks for the exposure!

Ethically (and by Law) you need to get permission or obtain a license to use a photo you’ve found online. The good news is many photographers are happy to give permission if you ask and treat their photos with respect. And if you’re the photographer being asked you can check and see in advance who it is that is asking to use your photo. A little common courtesy and respect for each other’s works goes a long way to using the web for good.

Just ask permission!

And, of course, using a photo without permission AND without photo credit is obviously (or should be obviously) a bad thing. For example, Meanwhile in Canada used a photo of mine on June 6 to promote its Canada’s 43 Insanely Beautiful National Parks thread. Not only was my photo poached from the web and posted without credit, each park had an image ‘borrowed’ from the web and posted without credit. I recognize numerous images from my professional collegues posted in the feed on national parks. Maybe your image is there as well? The ironic thing is when you go to the about page of Meanwhile in Canada the author is super protective of their copyright and privacy:

Warning- Any person and/or institution and/or Agent and/or Agency of any governmental structure including but not limited to the Federal Governments of Canada and the United States also using or monitoring/using this website or any of its associated websites, you do NOT have my permission to utilize this page’s information nor any of the content contained herein including, but not limited to my photos, and/ or the comments made about my photo’s or any other “picture” art posted on my profile. You are hereby notified that you are strictly prohibited from disclosing, copying, distributing, disseminating, or taking any other action against me with regard to this page and the contents herein. The foregoing prohibitions also apply to your employee(s), agent(s), student(s) or any personnel under your direction or control. The contents of this page are private and legally privileged and confidential information, and the violation of my personal privacy is punishable by law.

I find the attitude of Meanwhile in Canada to be common even among photographers. I personally know photographers who flip out when someone uses their pictures without permission but who happily ‘borrow’ music from the web, without permission or license, for their slide shows. They also have no problem watching or copying pirated movies. We can’t have it both ways.

We all need to treat the creations of others with respect just as we wish our work to be treated. The Golden Rule applies on the web as it does in life. Is that too much to ask? If these were your photos what would you do? I’d love to know your thoughts.

Need more information on this topic? I highly recommend this post by Sarah F. Hawkins on Law and Etiquette of Using Photos Online.

This image is not free for anyone to use as they see fit just because it’s posted on the web!
©Darwin Wiggett


  1. Jennie
    August 18, 2017

    I wholeheartedly agree! It’s not that hard to ask a photographer to use his/her photo. I was asked about one of my own and was happy to give it up. Also, it’s not fair to all of us good people who buy stock music and stock photos/videos for our websites. Thanks for the article!

  2. Luc Lemieux
    August 23, 2017

    I could not agree more. I’ve also heard about the Golden Rule the one that we should all abide by. However there’s also a different version of the Rule and it goes like this; He who has the Gold makes the Rule. And in this case, you and others, it would seem, don’t have the Gold since you gain nothing and it may even hurt your reputation. A fellow pro photographer of yours, John E. Marriott, had said in an article, that he does not allow hunting/fishing mags to post any of his photos. There’s a reason for that. The same can be said about other photographers who have their images stolen, they all want to know, I want to know, where my photos are posted and by whom since I may not share their opinions or views.