It’s a Creative Business: How to Use Copyright-free Images and Sound Without Getting in Trouble

This week, Rodika Tollefson discusses the importance of copyright and creative responsibility.


If you create art for a living, you probably feel strongly about protecting your copyrights. After all, even if all that sweat and tears went into the work for the pleasure of it, you have bills to pay.


I am constantly surprised how many creatives don’t think twice when the tables are turned. They think it’s perfectly okay to copy a photo from a news or stock site, or an image from social media, and use it for their own website, brochure, etc.; use a song purchased from iTunes for a video promoting their art, event, etc.; or re-purpose someone else’s painting for their book’s cover.


Paying 99 cents for a song for your personal music library doesn’t mean you can legally use it as a soundtrack for that great video promo you’re making, and just because it’s easy to copy and paste an image from a website or someone shared a photo on Facebook doesn’t mean you can take it for your own use.


This also applies to images from historic archives, including the Library of Congress, because they often have a copyright holder. In these cases, all you may need is to ask permission. Get it in writing!


What’s a creative with a limited budget to do in all other cases? If you need free music or images, look either for works in the public domain, or for those that have a Creative Commons license. Many photographers, musicians and artists — even professionals — freely allow others to use their work, often only in exchange for attribution.


Some sources of free music:


Some sources of free images:


Read the license terms carefully because even a Creative Commons license may have restrictions and specific requirements on how to give the artist credit. Some don’t allow use for commercial purposes — and even if you’re not making any money from the product, your purpose may still be considered commercial. If you can’t give attribution to the artists, many of them will let you use their work for a small fee instead.


One final point: Don’t let by the term “royalty-free” mislead you. It doesn’t mean “free to take.” Chances are, you need to pay a licensing fee, which comes with certain terms, just like Creative Commons (it may restrict use to news purposes, may require author credit even if you’re paying for the image, and may disallow any editing).


And, of course, don’t forget the best resource of all: fellow Pen Women. You may have a composer or photographer in your own branch who would be happy to share her work with you.


(Disclaimer: I’m not an attorney and this column isn’t intended as legal advice on copyrights. Do your own research.)


Rodika Tollefson is a member-at-large who has a master’s degree in digital media, which included coursework in digital media law. She’s a seasoned journalist who now provides digital media content and strategy, and is currently the editor of The Pen Woman and the National Public Relations Committee Chair.

“Book with Pencil” by winnond/

WANTED: GUEST BLOGGERS! Pen Women are invited to submit guest posts for two new series: Creative Inspirational Wisdom and It’s A Creative Business. Please visit this link for more details. We look forward to reading your material!

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