Why Stealing Images Is the Same As Stealing Words

Discussion Post Stars
On May 9, Shanelle (@seeshanelle) asked on Twitter whether “pictures not mine” is a proper attribution for photos and images used in aesthetic posts.  Last time I checked, 25% of 48 respondents said that it was.

This is a shocking answer coming from the book blogging community, a place where people value intellectual and creative property and generally agree that plagiarism is a no-go.  Shannelle wonders if people are accepting of this type of attribution because they can’t put a face to the photographers in the same way they can put a face to book bloggers who have been plagiarized.  I wonder if the problem is that we aren’t clearly seeing the relationship between images and words and how both are creative property.

Proper Crediting Means Using a Specific Name

I partially understand why people think it’s acceptable to use images they find online, with proper credit to the owner. (It’s not, but we’ll get to that.)  I never thought, however, it would be necessary to to clarify that a proper credit means actually naming the owner/source of the image.

“Credits” of the type Shannelle mentions are relatively common.  “Photo not mine.”  “Image from Google.”  “Credit to original owner.”  These types of disclaimers sprinkle the Internet.  Yet what does it mean?  Essentially nothing, beside the fact the photo isn’t yours, and it belongs to…someone.  This is why this type of “credit” is acceptable nowhere else, not in academia, not in book blogging, and it’s not acceptable here.

imagine turning in an essay for school, and in the Works Cited entry you write “book from the library.”  That’s where you found the book; it’s not giving credit to the author.  Your instructor would never accept this as passable academic work.  Yet this is the written equivalent of saying “photo from Google” because Google didn’t take the photograph.

Now imagine taking this blog post from Pages Unbound and reposting it on your blog.  You don’t link back. You don’t credit “Briana from Pages Unbound.” You simply take this post and at the end put a disclaimer that says “words and ideas not mine.”  The blogosphere would be in an uproar because this is clearly stealing. And it is the equivalent of taking a photo and putting a caption that says “image not mine” because you didn’t really try to credit the creator at all.

Yet Proper Crediting Doesn’t Always Mean You Can Use Someone’s Work

There are laws that limit the ways you can use other people’s creative work, as long as it’s still under copyright, and those laws apply equally to images and to words.  Correctly citing a photo or a piece of text doesn’t necessarily mean you can do whatever you want with it.  This is important to know because people have been sued to for using images that didn’t belong to them. You don’t want to be one of those people.

Let’s move back to texts.  Think about school again.  Fair academic use usually means you can quote part of a text in your own writing. That’s why you can quote Moby Dick in your essay for college.  You cannot, however, copy all of Moby Dick and say you are quoting it.  Now, that may sound absurd because Moby Dick is notoriously long–but it applies to all writing. For example, you also cannot quote the entirety of a poem in your work if that poem is still under copyright; you can only quote part of it.  This is actually a huge hurdle for professional academics who want to publish scholarly articles about modern poetry; they need to get permission to quote most of the poem in their own work.  Giving the poem a proper citation in the Works Cited just doesn’t cut it legally.

The same is true for blogging.  Imagine now that you repost this entire post on your own blog and you do link back to Pages Unbound. That still doesn’t make it okay because you do not have my permission. You have stolen my work and possibly my page views and followers.  People are now going to your blog to read my work.

This is why even crediting the owner of a photo does not necessarily make it ethical or legal. You are taking the whole of their work–the whole photograph–and putting it on your blog. It devalues the photo because people no longer have to go to the owner’s website to see it; they just have to go to yours.

So Ask for Permission

The problem with the Internet is that “sharing” has become normalized. Sites like Pinterest, for instance, encourage reposting of other people’s images.  Photographers often actually don’t mind if people repost their work, and this makes it confusing when other photographers do mind and try to enforce their copyright. So the safest thing to do?  Never assume.

Always ask the owner of an image if you can use it.  Get the permission in writing. It can be informal, like a tweet saying “yes,” but make sure you have proof and can pull it out should someone ask.  And if you don’t know who owns the image, don’t use it. One of the complications of people’s lack of citation is that it’s often very difficult to find the original owner.  Don’t assume because someone else stole the photo that you can. Let it go and find another image to use.

You wouldn’t steal someone’s writing and post it on your blog with the vague statement that “These words aren’t mind.” So don’t do it with images.

8 thoughts on “Why Stealing Images Is the Same As Stealing Words

  1. Krysta says:

    I’m staring at those numbers in disbelief. A quarter of respondents think it’s okay not to give credit to a photographer?! It always bothers me when I see someone write “photo from Google.” The photo was not taken by Google, it’s not yours, and you don’t have permission to use it!

    I see people responding on Twitter that you can do whatever you want as long as you’re not making money off it. That’s completely untrue! By reposting someone’s art without permission, you are potentially causing them to make less money, even if you do not make any! I have read articles by photographers and artists who explain how they’ve lost profit, that is, their living, from people reposting their work without permission. People seem to think anything on the Internet is fair game, but it really isn’t.


    • Briana says:

      I thought the number was unexpectedly high, as well. I could believe people would think using the photo with proper citation was ok–but this isn’t even proper citation.

      That’s the thing. There ARE consequences, even if you don’t think there’s a direct monetary loss for the creator.


    • Briana says:

      I’m kind of surprised, too. I feel as if the blogosphere has this conversation once in a while, but I guess the issue is never solved completely.


  2. Shannelle C. says:

    I’m so honored that you’re writing a post based on my tweet *hugs* But something I thought about is that I might have intended to write a post using the results of my tweet, so you should probably check next time, to see if it’s alright to to write a blog post about it.

    And I think people understand photo copyright, when it concerns them. Bookstagrammers hate that “photo not mine” phrase so much, but imagine my surprise seeing a bookstagrammer saying the same thing for her aesthetic compilations. I think the fact that we don’t know the person being hurt by the practice only perpetuates it.


  3. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    This is an interesting post. I’m always worried about photo crediting. For the most part, I’m just using pictures of books from Goodreads, but do I have to cite Goodreads? That’s something I’m always unsure of because who is really the owner? Is it the author, the cover designer, or the publisher? I try to link all of the books to Amazon, but that’s not the same as crediting. All of the pictures I use on my blog are usually from pixabay, which is free and doesn’t require crediting unless specified, and Shutterstock, where I’m paying to use the photos. When it’s an image from the Internet, say a Google search, I try to remember to link the URL to the picture so if any anyone clicks on it, they can see the source. But the trouble is that person is not always the owner of the photo either, which makes using pictures online confusing. If I were any good at taking pictures (sadly, I’m terrible), I would use my own pictures instead of stock photos. This is a bit of a gray area I would imagine for a lot of bloggers.


    • Briana says:

      Book covers for reviews are usually considered in the realm of fair use, and as far I am aware the publishers like when reviewers use them because it helps with marketing. (I even asked an author about this when I first started blogging and she agreed, though she’s not necessarily the legal voice of the publishing company.) I think editing a book cover for, say, a heading image might be more of a gray area, but I also think most publishers don’t actually care and no one’s going to get in trouble for doing it.

      That’s part of the problem with people not crediting the photos they have. If I find a photo on a website that’s not the website of the original owner and the person didn’t credit it correctly, now I can’t credit correctly either because I don’t know what the original source is. It starts of huge chain or lack of proper attribution.

      I do think there’s a lot of confusion about fair use of images. I like the rise in sites like Unsplash that allow you to use pictures for literally anything because it’s true that a lot of us can’t take all our own photos. It’s something I’m mildly interested in, actually, but I just don’t have the time to both take dozens of photos and write good content for a blog that’s just a hobby.


      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        I figured it was okay to use the book covers, but your post made me think about all the photos I use on my blog. Personally, I would never edit the cover of a book, though I have seen it done on other blogs. I try to stay away from Google images when I can, and I noticed the photos on Wikipedia have a pop-up that says you need to credit the owner. I couldn’t figure out how they wanted me to do it, so I didn’t bother to use the pictures. Unsplash is a good site. I also like Canva. I figure if I have to pay $1 for a picture it’s better than stealing it. I always feel weird about using pictures that do not specifically state they do not require crediting. I hear ya! I would like to get into photography, but I have a hard enough time fitting in work, posts, and writing, let alone learning how to take good pictures.


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