The internet is an astonishing marketplace of images and ideas. For visual artists, it provides opportunities for our work to be seen widely. It's unbelievably gratifying when someone leaves a comment here on my website or on my Facebook page, or buys a print of one of my photos that they've seen online. It's a thrill when a friend shares my work with her network, fulfilling the promise of social networking to extend my audience.
For working artists who create in two dimensions (painters and photographers, primarily), the pitfall is the ease with which internet users can copy or download images and use them for personal or commercial purposes.
Without getting into the complexities of copyright law (which are covered fairly well here), the fact is that unless an image is clearly marked as copyright-free, you should never make a copy without permission.
It's a common misconception that it's okay to download and publish an image as long as you credit the artist or photographer. Not so. You should always ask permission unless the photo is clearly marked as copyright-free or if it has an appropriate Creative Commons license (more on that in a few paragraphs).
Another misconception is that it's okay to download a photo for personal use (as desktop wallpaper, for instance) as long as you're not printing or redistributing it. Again, not so.
It's true that a number of people share their photos on sites like Flickr for the sheer pleasure of letting the world enjoy their work, and they will be thrilled if you ask to use their work, even if you can't pay them. A nonprofit for whom I occasionally write finds inexpensive or free images for its newsletter on Flickr. The key is that they ask the photographer for permission.
It's also true that copyright law can be unnecessarily rigid or opaque, which is where Creative Commons comes in. CC allows artists and others to choose from among six licenses that will allow flexibility as to what uses others can make of their works. For instance, I could choose a license that would allow you to download a photo for personal but not commercial use. I will be making some decisions about CC licensing in the coming year.
In case your imagination is running wild, I'm not writing this because of a negative personal experience. But there's an accumulation of stories out there about intentional and unintentional misuses of creative work (including a "wedding photographer" whose entire website consisted of images from another photographer). This post is meant to be educational and proactive, because people honestly don't always understand what they're permitted to do with artwork they find online.
Lastly, please don't take this post as discouragement for sharing an artist's work online. (See paragraph 1: we love that!) One of the best online developments is the Share button, which is not just on Facebook but on most other websites, including my own. If you'd like to share my work (or anyone else's) with your network, look for that Share button, which allows the work to be seen by others in the safe context of the artist's website. It is not a copyright violation to share in this way.
If you're looking for photos for a project (whether personal or professional), I highly recommend this article, which gives more details about copyright and also provides a list of resources for free-but-legal images.
Interested in the image above? You can find it here on my website. Please feel free to click the Share button!