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Netiquette 101: Using photos you didn't take yourself

How and when to use photos you find on the internet can be confusing. To make things easier for our citizen reporters, we set out the general rules followed on The Rapidian.
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Many photos of our city and places around town can be found on our Flickr pool, available for your use by our reporters.

Many photos of our city and places around town can be found on our Flickr pool, available for your use by our reporters. /Steven Depolo

With all of the sharing happening on websites like Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr, not to mention all of the improper use on blogs and websites setting a poor example, it can be easy to forget that when we are using someone else's photo, we are using someone else's property. The internet keeps changing so rapidly that it can often be hard to keep up on what is appropriate and what is not.

We want to be nice, it's just sometimes hard to figure out what the proper etiquette is on the internet. It can be difficult to determine the difference between sharing and using. There's even a term for this ever-changing, always-confusing new set of proper manners: netiquette.

Rather than hashing out all of the differing opinions about fair use and copyright laws, or explaining the legal repercussions a reporter may be risking, I thought instead I would just cut to the chase and talk about what the expectations are on The Rapidian. 

First, the general rule:  

If you didn't make it, it isn't yours.

This applies to photos you find on the web, text (writing) you discover on a website, or artwork and design. Sometimes it can be hard to keep this in mind. The internet often feels like an open, ethereal space. The internet is the place where everyone has access to everything. Right? It's no wonder we're confused.

When created content for The Rapidian, though, it's important to think of everything as using rather than sharing.Though photos on the internet aren't necessarily physical property, they're still someone's property (whether the company's or the person's).

Think of it this way: would you borrow someone's car without asking first? No, we would never do that: that's called grand theft auto. Even if you have a friend who would say yes if you asked to borrow their car, they probably still wouldn't take too kindly to you taking it without the decency of asking first. So let's do this with internet property as well. This means that you need to ask permission or -as often is available online- check if permission has already been given.

Often a website will grant or deny permission to using a photo in one of a few ways:

  • Copyright: Sometimes a photo will have a "©" -the copyright symbol- right next to it, or it will be spelled out along with the photo that it is copyrighted. In fact, an image doesn't have to have an indication of copyright for it to be protected by the law, so though the indication assures you that it is not permissable to use a photo without asking permission, the lack of it does not guarantee you can use it, either.
  • Terms of Use/Terms of Service: Though each image may not tell you whether or not you can use it, usually somewhere on a website you'll find a section called "Terms of Use" or even a description of use of the website's property in their "About Us" or "Contact Us" sections. Search around, see what they say. If you can't find an explicit description of what is permitted, assume nothing is permitted.
  • Creative Commons: Some online images have been licensed with a particular "creative commons" license. These licenses grant permission (with limitations) for common use.

If you don't see permission or prohibition clearly stated, assume that you can't use an image.


Now what do we do as reporters when we have an article we are writing but don't have a great image to go with it? We know how important images are to getting readers noticing what you have to say-and in fact we don't share an article on our front page or on Facebook without it. So what do you do?

There are a few places you can look for an image you can use:

  • The Rapidian Flickr pool: All photographers have agreed that any images they upload to our Flickr pool have express permission for use by The Rapidian and its reporters. Just be sure to credit with the photographer's name and make sure the credit url takes our readers directly back to the image (see the images in this article).
  • Creative Commons: The kind folks that created Creative Commons and provide licensing have also created a search function on their website, so that you can search the entire world wide web for images licensed to be used. Again, be sure to credit the photographer and provide the credit url that brings people back to the original photo.
  • The subject of your article: Chances are, you'll have more options than you could ever need just in those two places. If not, the subject of your article (a band, a politician, a restaurant) would probably be more than happy to send you a photo or two that you could use to help you illustrate your article about them.

Still not sure if something is free for you to use? Most reporters have a mentor who will be able to help them figure it out. If you don't have a mentor, or they're not sure either, I'll be happy to help you figure it out.

And in the meantime, assume the general rule: If you didn't make it, it isn't yours.

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