Back to the Sep-Oct 2019 issue

Website Photos—Is Your City Violating Copyright Laws?

By Quinn O’Reilly

Do you search the internet for photos to use on your city’s website to make it more engaging and interesting? If so, do you think about the copyright implications of using these photos?

If you are not thinking about copyright, you probably should be. Posting a photo—or any other image—on the city’s website without obtaining the proper license or permission can result in expensive fines or settlement costs for the city. Luckily, there are ways for the city to find interesting and engaging content for the city website without running afoul of the federal Copyright Act of 1976.

What is copyright?

Copyright is an aspect of intellectual property law. It grants ownership of an original creative work to the creator of that work. Essentially, whenever someone makes something creative—such as a photo, a song, or a poem—the creator of the work has ownership rights to his or her creation.

The intent of copyright is to ensure the creators of an original work are able to control how the work is used. The protections of copyright apply to a work as soon as it is created—there is no requirement to register a work for it to be protected by copyright law. The Copyright Act provides the law for how copyright operates, including fines for violating copyrights.

Violating copyright

Because all original creative works, including photos, are protected by copyright, it is a good practice to assume that any photo found online is protected by copyright, even if there is no logo or copyright registration mark to suggest the work is registered or belongs to anyone. To enforce copyright ownership, some people have started using technology to search the internet to discover if their copyrighted work has been posted on a website without permission. If it is discovered the work is being used without permission, the owner of the website is contacted and is threatened with large fines for violating the Copyright Act.

Sometimes copyright holders will send a notice of a violation and request that the unlicensed work be removed. But a copyright holder does not need to request that the work be removed before seeking damages for violation of the copyright. Often, the website owner is able to settle with the copyright holder for less than what a fine under the Copyright Act would have been, but the settlements are often several thousand dollars.

Exceptions to copyright

While there are several exceptions to copyright, there is no absolute exception that would apply any time a city wants to post a photo, or other creative work, to its website without first obtaining a license or permission from the copyright holder.

A well-known exception is “fair use,” which allows the unlicensed use of copyrighted works in some circumstances. Fair use might apply sometimes, but it is not guaranteed in every situation. So, it is not completely safe to rely on fair use—especially if the copyright owner does not agree that fair use applies.

Ways to get website photos

There are many options for finding photos to make your website exciting and interesting—without violating copyright law. One option is to use original photos, taken by city staff, for use on the city website. Another option is to solicit photos for use on the city’s website by having as a community photo contest or just asking residents to submit photos.

If you are looking online for photos, there are great options as well. There are several websites, such as, that offer the use of photos for free. The owners of the photos have granted permission for this. If you use a website with free photos, be sure to review the terms of service for the website. Some websites allow free use of photos for specific uses, but not all uses, so it is important to confirm your use is covered.

There are other websites that offer photos for a small fee or through a subscription. Google offers a feature with its Advanced Image Search that allows for searching for images that are categorized as being free to use, though it is important to confirm a specific image you locate is free to use before using it on the city’s website.

Finally, you can obtain a license from a copyright holder to use a specific photo. In some cases, it may be as simple as emailing a photographer to ask for permission to use the photo on the city’s website.

Copyright law can be intimidating, but there are easy ways to find great content without violating anyone’s copyright.

Quinn O’Reilly is a research attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: or (651) 281-1228.