All About Photo Usage: Rules for Self-Publishers

In the age of the internet, photos are shared everywhere, often without a lot of thought to where they came from originally. Do you ever think about who took the photograph before reposting it? Whether the person pictured has given their permission? What landmarks are shown? Not likely.

But when it comes to including photos in your self-published book, there are rules. Ignore them at your legal peril!

If you’re thinking about publishing a book with any images in it, read on:

How do I know if an image can work for my book?

There are a few key elements that determine whether the image you’ve found will work:

  1. The file is sized for print and digital quality. Read up on image resolution requirements. It would be a shame to secure rights and pay for an image you love, only to find out it’s too small or grainy to print well!
  2. Permissions for rights and reproduction can be secured.
  3. It’s affordable and/or fits your budget.

I found this image on Google with no credit attached. Can’t I just use it?

Not without significant risk. Search methods like Google, Pinterest, and the plethora of other image-sharing resources are a great tool for inspiration, or as a reference for the kind of thing you want to show. But proceed with caution, and avoid getting too attached to what you find, because images here are often divorced from their original sources. It can be difficult to trace back and determine whether the image is viable for how you want to use it.

What kinds of permissions are needed to use an image?

The answer to this question depends on a few things:

  • Identification of the source of the image, and who owns the rights. Sometimes it’s a single photographer, sometimes it’s multiple rights holders, sometimes it’s a stock agency. You need to get written permission to use the photograph from any and all rights holders.
  • The content of the image. Even if you get the photographer’s permission, you may need additional clearances for people pictured in it, or even famous locations pictured.
  • How and where you intend to use the image. Sometimes, an image will be available for use in the book’s interior, but not the cover. Or available for use on the cover in design only and not as a standalone image (which often happens in the marketing of the book).
  • How the book will be distributed. Do you intend to publish only in English, in the United States? Or do you have plans to print an edition in the UK or China, and/or in other languages? Some types of images are licensed with these parameters, and are priced accordingly. Image stock sites like Getty or Shutterstock are easy to use for non–photo researchers. They are the most foolproof way to cover your bases, but even they cannot always guarantee all rights are covered.

Can I hire someone to handle all this for me?

Yes, you can hire freelance photo researchers. Photo researchers have a thorough understanding of use rights, including copyright and fair use, and will help you pursue a better-safe-than-sorry route. If you’re embarking on a photo-heavy project, you may be thankful if you bring a photo researcher on board so you don’t have to deal with tracking down dozens of sources and rights holders yourself!

What’s more, photo researchers can also be creative collaborators on any book project. They can lend an artful eye for the right cover image, or to find that obscure topic you were hoping to show, or facilitate overall consistency and visual quality of images to your project.