By Greg Mullis, Sr. Vice President/VP of Corporate Services, Tri-County EMC, Gray, Ga.

Is a picture worth a thousand words? Perhaps. But is it worth a thousand dollars or more?

Knowing which image to use to enhance your communications is important. But knowing whether you can or should use an image is even more significant. We cringe at the thought of being accused of plagiarism, but using an image without permission is no different and should carry the same stigma and legal penalties.

Violating copyright laws can result in cease-and-desist orders, takedown orders of your website, and even monetary penalties of $750 to $30,000 for each infringement. At the discretion of the court, this award could be lowered for unintentional uses or raised as high as $150,000 for intentional violations.

Protect yourself and your co-op by understanding copyright and intellectual property laws.

Copyright laws throughout the years

All creative content is protected by Clause 8, the Patent and Copyright Clause, in the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to establish laws protecting the rights of authors or artists of artistic works. Updates came via the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998.

An image is protected the moment it’s created, regardless of whether it’s registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Registering an image enhances those rights, specifically providing “prima facie” evidence of the validity of the copyright. These rights are limited by time. Images created on or after Jan. 1, 1978, have a copyright duration of 70 years past the death of the creator, after which the image becomes public domain and free for anyone to use. Images taken before Jan. 1, 1978, are protected for 95 years after publication. All images created before 1923 are considered public domain.

“Work for hire” is one notable exception to the rights of a photographer when it comes to ownership of an image. If a shot was taken by an employee as part of their routine job, the image is the property of the employer. If your co-op commissions a photographer or designer, the images should be the property of the co-op, but be sure to discuss licensing in advance.

Types of image licenses

Rights managed or royalty free

Love it or hate it, stock photography supplies the artwork for a majority of the marketing or advertising projects produced. Having the time, talent, and availability of subject matter to produce all of our own photos simply is not an option for most electric cooperatives, so we purchase images. Understanding the two types of stock photos and using them correctly can keep us out of trouble.

Rights-managed (RM) images are typically licensed for a single use or specific campaign think like those from Getty or Almay. You may not always find the best image here for your project, but they offer a higher level of exclusivity for a higher price. With RM images, you will select a specific medium, such as print, broadcast, video, or graphic display, and a distribution and time frame. If you’re willing to pay more, some agencies or artists will offer the exclusive rights to that image for longer periods of time. Rights to the image expire at the end of the agreed-upon term and they cannot be transferred. In fact, in many cases, they cannot exist on multiple servers or be shared among employees within the organization.

Royalty-free images, available from agencies like Shutterstock or iStock, are professionally produced images but come at a lower prices than rights-managed images and typically have much less stringent use restrictions. Standard licensing from iStock is perpetual, meaning there are no expiration dates on your rights to use the image in an unlimited number of projects. Print runs may have some limitations, but those can often be avoided by purchasing optional extended licenses. While you may be able to share a catalog within your organization, transferring rights is still not allowed.

One of the more obscure advantages of acquiring the rights for stock photos is the built-in photo release for anyone in the image.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that has created a different type of licensing, giving individual artists seeking some exposure a mechanism to allow varied uses of their images. You will encounter Creative Commons on photo social sharing sites like Flickr or communities like Pixabay. Creative Commons is self-described as a bridge between copyright law and public domain, but of course it doesn’t replace or negate copyright laws.

By selecting and applying one of six types of licensing, the artist is giving prior approval for use with stipulations, such as attribution, derivatives, or non-commercial use. Only two licenses permit commercial use, so heads up, it can be difficult to find an image among the thousands available that permit commercial use.

Fair Use

The Fair Use doctrine is a legal term referring to the use of copyrighted work under specific circumstances, typically for the benefit of the public. It exists for the greater good of society, allowing copyrighted works to be used without permission for education, research, criticism, product reviews, or parody. Because it’s controversial, confusing, and hated by photographers, you might just steer clear of the Fair Use doctrine.

Public Domain

Creative works that have no exclusive intellectual property rights are called public domain. Their copyrights may have expired, they may have been created prior to 1923, or the rights may have been otherwise forfeited. While it may be easy enough to find the date a photo was taken, otherwise finding the providence and rights associated with a vintage image is another matter. There are plenty of websites offering public domain images and remember that any government website’s assets are typically (not always, though) public domain but never assume that an old-timey photo is in the public domain. Do your homework or find another image.

Real-life examples

Test your knowledge with a few sample scenarios:

As a communicator, you get hired to a new position at a new cooperative. Your desktop computer has a folder with hundreds of photos, many obviously stock photos. Which can you use?

In the best case, that folder contains every licensing agreement to go with every image, and your predecessor retained the original file names rather than calling them something like “lady with cellphone.” Lots of stock image file names include the file number and some variation of the agency’s name. If not, try using Google’s image search. You can also try opening the image in Photoshop and checking the EXIF data for licensing information. If all of those fail, your best bet is to get rid of them. You can buy another library of images for what the damages from one copyright infringement lawsuit might cost you.

You’re designing your cooperative’s annual report and have purchased a great image for the cover. Do you need to place an attribution on the cover, even though it would look bad?

The majority of stock agencies do not require any attribution for commercial use. The same is true for an image taken by a local photographer or cooperative employee.

After creating and downloading a great social media post on Canva, which included a paid-for stock image, you decide it would make a great postcard to send to all 25,000 of your members. Are there any problems? The standard license you typically purchase with a Canva design containing a stock image is for single use. You do have the right to make prints, but only up to 2,000. You must purchase an extended license agreement to make enough to send to your entire membership. Reading the details of every image license you purchase will keep you out of trouble.

You were provided with an article and what appears to be a stock image from your statewide or G&T. Should you assume that it’s safe to run in your cooperative’s newsletter?

No, not until the same organization provides you with a license agreement clearly showing that they paid for the right to distribute that image or transfer the license to another entity. Never assume anything with licensing. Your best protection is reading and understanding the license agreement. Worst case, if you really like the image, you can always find it or something similar through an agency and purchase your own rights.

NRECA offer: Digital asset management

If you have a large catalog of images and have the budget to substantiate the purchase, a digital asset management system could help you organize your images, including tagging and licensing. NRECA offers members a highly discounted rate from MerlinOne to purchase their own digital asset management archive. MerlinOne is a dynamic, fast, and intuitive archive system that uses metadata for organizing a variety of digital assets: video, photography, text, and audio. For more information on accessing these services at your co-op, please contact NRECA Multimedia Producer Denny Gainer at