Images, work and copyright

You’ve seen the most wonderful picture on Google Images. An online blog has the perfect photo for your book cover. Look at that graphic – wouldn’t that make your book event notice/header/PR banner shine?

Google - public doman


Unless you pay a licence or ask the owner’s permission to reproduce it, it’s theft. The least you could expect is a reprimand and a demand to cease using it; you could also receive a huge bill or be prosecuted in court. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean you can use it. Only public domain and wide licences like Wikipedia’s Creative Commons Licence or Gnu can be safe; even then you may need to acknowledge the image originator or accept other conditions.

Copyright exists to protect the interests and income of the creator of an artistic work. I slog away on my 100,000 word novels for nearly a year. Average UK annual income for authors is £11,000* (Yes, it’s that low!). Even so, somebody pinching or pirating my work would represent a significant loss for me.

A photographer or artist takes time and expense to set up or compose an image/video/graphic and then sell it, whether freelance or on commission. This extends to websites, brands, book covers, adverts. This is their livelihood.

copyrightSo if an artist, writer, filmmaker, etc. creates an original product, it’s their copyright and they own the right to sell it or distribute it on their own terms. As soon as you write your short story, poem or novel, it’s automatically copyrighted to you. European authorities, thanks to EU harmonisation, take more or less the same strict attitude about protecting the creator’s ‘droits d’auteur’.

Some creatives handle the licensing of their own work, some use an agency and some distribute for free, but however published, the work’s copyright remains with the creator. A writer may give an agency exclusive representation authority to sell the rights to their work to a foreign publisher, or audio producer/retailer, but the copyright remains with the original author.

Gladiatrix - Photo courtesy of Britannia

Photo courtesy of Britannia

Switching round, I buy images from image libraries, e.g. iStockphoto, but it’s only a licence to use and the licence can have restrictions such as ‘editorial use only’ which means you can only use the image in a news media or blog post, but not in PR material or cover of a book. Always best to read the licence agreement! Sometimes I download from a free library; no fee and I (usually) have permission to use the image as I wish, but the image is not mine. It’s still a form of licence.

Sometimes you can contact a photo owner and ask permission to use their image, but you should always annotate it “Courtesy of XXX” or “With kind permission of YYY”. This is why you see the caption you do under the picture of the gladiatrix which I use now and again. The copyright remains with Durolitum as they took the photo at one of their events. The benefit for them is that more people become aware of them.

Even if a friend says, “Sure, lift it from my Facebook page”, it’s best to acknowledge it. And in reverse, if you let somebody use an image you originated, e.g. a photo, you should stipulate that they should credit you – with a link to your website or wherever you originally posted it.

One of the safest ways is to take your own photos or use images that are over 150 years old and in the public domain. I love using old paintings such as this one for the first book trailer for INSURRECTIO.

This is called Destruction from a series of four called The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole and dated 1836. It was perfect for the theme of the book. Later, in a redesign of the whole Roma Nova series, I swapped it for a much more sinister image with Caius Tellus projecting a seductive appearance that hides corruption. (Licence bought and paid for.)


In a connected topic, do remember that anything you post on social media is open book. Once posted, and whatever your privacy settings or legal niceties, your photos are public and you can’t stop anybody taking a copy. So post low resolution versions which, if anybody lifts them, won’t be good enough for printing or PR purposes.

Happy writing and stay legal!

* Source: Society of Authors


UPDATED 2021: Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series.Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers. Double Pursuit, the sequel, is now out!

Find out more about Roma Nova, its origins, stories and heroines and taste world the latest contemporary thriller Double Identity… Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

10 comments to Images, work and copyright

  • The only exceptions to copyright are titles, ideas and characters. Anyone can use the same title (though I do suggest you check by doing a Google Search, it can be just as annoying for you as the other author if you share a title and readers are buying the wrong book!
    Ideas are not copyright either, if they were we would only have a few novels and wonderful movies like West Side Story would never have been made. You can’t go copying great chunks of narrative text though – the actual writing IS copyright!
    Facts are not copyright either, once you’ve written your non-fiction piece on (say, Roman women) anyone can use your research – although again, not your actual words!
    Characters are not covered by copyright either, unless they have a trademark (as do all Disney characters, James Bond, etc – i.e. mostly characters you see in films. But seriously would another author really write a novel about a spy called James Bond or a wizard called Harry Potter?)
    So I can take the idea of a character and turn him or her into a character and idea of my own – but again I cannot copy the wording of any text. In other words I can quite legitimately write a romance about a handsome Scots plumber called James Bond who has a torrid affair with a beautiful but mysterious Russian. It would not be ‘good form’ to make him a spy though.
    And as a last thought, no you cannot take a part of a cover designed for one of your books and use it on a different book without your designer’s permission. You own the book, you also own the cover, but the designer owns the design.
    Bottom line? If in doubt don’t use or ask first!

  • Alison Morton

    When you say “Facts are not copyright either, once you’ve written your non-fiction piece on (say, Roman women) anyone can use your research – although again, not your actual words!” I had to smile.

    A piece I wrote on the role of germs has proved to be very popular among students writing term papers! Whether they acknowledge the source is a different question, but I hope they do.

  • Richard Tearle

    I agree with all the above – and it is always polite to acknowledge copyright even if it is not necessary to do so. But what if you are the victim of copyright theft? when I worked in the music industry we would recommend that composers post a copy of their manuscript to themselves in a registered envelope and on receipt, don’t open it! That way a date of the work(s) existence can be established. That might be a bit cumbersome and costly for a full length novel and a bit tricky with photographs or works of art, so an alternative is to lodge copies with a responsible person such as a solicitor or a bank manager. hopefully it will never come to a court situation, but it is a good safeguard if you find yourself having to defend your work and prove that copyright was yours prior to publication of the plagiarised version. A judge may open the envelope in court if necessary and (I presume) reseal it with necessary annotation stating when and why. Hope that is of use…..

    • Alison Morton

      A digital solution is to email the manuscript to yourself of a trusted friend/spouse/partner several times during its creation. Then get them go email it back to you. This you will have provable dates.

      • Richard Tearle

        Yes – I keep forgetting we live in the digital age!!! but as long as there is an undisputed date to reference, any method will do….

      • About five years ago (circa 2010 or 2011) I was accused of copying a novel. I had an irate email from some US chap accusing me of pinching his story about 1066. Apart from, as I said above, an idea and facts are not copyright -if they were not there would only be one novel about 1066 – the novel he said I had written copying his work was my ‘I Am The Chosen King’, published two years after his book.
        I do admit to having great satisfaction in replying very politely to him pointing out that this particular title was a US edition of a UK edition – which had been published way back in 2000.
        Funnily enough, I never had a response…

  • Excellent write up on copyright, Alison. And always worth repeating again and again. I have had artwork lifted here and there over the years and folks are always surprised when I explain copyright law governing intellectual property – as you say, just because it is on the internet, doesn’t mean it is free to use – most especially if one plans to profit from its use themselves.

    • Alison Morton

      Absolutely, Cathy. I think it all boils down to respecting other people’s created works. We authors like people to buy our books so we ought to pay for the sweat of other people’s brows.

  • Great article, Alison. As an istock photographer I am VERY grateful for you pointing out image copyright (and mentioning istock!) I’d just like to add that you are NOT safe taking your own photos. There are laws on what photographers can use and how – e.g. some buildings are copyrighted. I blogged about it here. Perhaps you could add your blog link in a comment on mine? I think they’re complementary.

    • Alison Morton

      Excellent point about taking your own photos especially if people wander into them. What about groups of friends and colleagues?

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