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How to Source and Use Photos in Self-published Book Covers

Jean Gill headshot

Jean Gill, photographer and author

From France, Jean Gill offers important advice about the right and legal way to source images for your books, websites and social media, drawing on her knowledge as both a professional photographer and an author, able to see the issue from both sides of the lens.

As writers, we want images for our book covers, blogs, adverts and tweets. It is so easy to break the law if you find the perfect picture online. All you have to do is right-click, save it and use it. Simple! As simple as picking up sweets in a shop and pocketing them.

You probably wouldn’t do the latter because a) it’s stealing and b) if you get caught, you don’t just pay the price of the sweets. The same applies to using images without permission, and there are some horror stories doing the rounds about the price of being caught.

Why Paid Stock Photos Give Peace of Mind

I’m a writer and a photographer, with a stock portfolio of 3,500 photos at istockphoto and Getty Images. When you buy a stock image, you pay for a license to use it and have the security of knowing you are not breaking any laws. The photographer remains the copyright holder and can earn a living through multiple small sales. If you use any photo without payment (if required) or permission, you are stealing from the photographer.

You would be surprised at which photos sell best. How much do you think each of these photos has earned for me?

photo of untidy wardrobe

photo of a hag in a swamp outside a cave

The untidy wardrobe has earned $400 and the swamp hag, which involved a gutsy paid model, complicated lighting and a unique (!) location – $20. The wardrobe photo is successful and the swamp hag is not (though of course I love it). If somebody saw the wardrobe and thought, ‘That’s just an ordinary photo; why shouldn’t I use it – and I’ll pay if I get caught,’ I’d lose my income.

Three Options for Authors

Is this a bit heavy when all you want is a little picture for your blog? You have three legal options. You could use a photo that is ‘free to use without restriction’ often stated to be ‘under creative commons license’. Here are two of the many sites that offer photos free, even for commercial use:

  1. Pixabay is a gateway to shutterstock and many of the paid stock libraries offer freebies as a taster. Help yourself!
  2. The New York Library (public domain section) is also one of many sites offering free photos. Be careful. Some ‘free sites’ steal photos. You could be in trouble if you use images these sites should not be offering.

You can pay for Royalty Free stock photos. Royalty Free does NOT mean free. It means you can use the photo in advertising (e.g. book jackets) and combine it with other images in any way you want. You can Photoshop it to death. Check the license use if you have a bestselling print run – you might need an extended license (usually at about 500,000 copies).

Credit your source where possible and, if you can, the photographer by name. These are your creative colleagues and, if you use one of my photos, let me know and I will publicise the fact! Photographers are your marketing friends!

Why Using Your Own Photos Isn’t Always Straightforward

The third option is to use your own (or a friend’s) photos. You avoid all the legal problems that way, right? Wrong. Photos that are fine for personal use might be illegal if used commercially, and it is your responsibility as photographer (and publisher) to obey the law. Your human subjects have rights so you should have permission from them before using their photo as e.g. a book jacket. Some buildings are copyright protected so you could be sued for using a photo of e.g. the Eiffel Tower at night, without permission.

I mentioned ‘Royalty Free’ photos. Every human subject in my photos has signed a Model Release permitting sale of their photos. There are no brand names, logos or copyright places. As a photographer, you could be sued over any of these issues.

The Editorial Exception

The exception is when you use or sell your photos as ‘Editorial’. This is photo-journalism; travel, news or street photography where you do not always have model permission. Editorial photos can only be used in a reporting context and cannot be changed (i.e. Photoshopped or cropped in a way that changes the context). Laws vary by country but, for instance, even for Editorial, my companies do not allow photos of one child unless model released; several children or a child with at least one adult are acceptable.

Which of these could you use for a book cover?

stock-photo-14436757-active-senior-hiking-on-the-moors stock-photo-15741414-street-in-old-quarter-of-lyon stock-photo-21623995-shepherd-and-flock-above-french-village

 

 

 

 

 

Answer: all of them require Model Releases or can only be sold for Editorial use. You could use them for a non-fiction (e.g. travel) book but if anybody can be recognised, it’s always safer to have permission from the subject. The first one does have a Model Release so is for sale Royalty Free.

Because we photographers are lovely people, this photo (Romance in Paris) is a gift to you from me, free to use without restriction.

Paris by Night by Jean Gill

Paris by night by Jean Gill – a gift to our readers!

Credit is always appreciated and if you let me know of any use, I will publicise that – I love seeing my photos ‘in the wild.’

Incidentally, photographers still own copyright to a photo even if there is no name or watermark on it, or embedded identifying data.

Those are mere reminders to viewers that the photo is copyright – they don’t change its status.

If you’re not sure it’s OK, then it probably isn’t, so unless you’re willing to go to court, don’t take risks. The main rule is to respect others’ copyright as much as your own, and to appreciate that a photographer’s subjects (human and property) have rights too. Only use photos you have permission to use, in the way that you are using them.

To view Jean Gill’s Stock portfolio, check out: www.istockphoto.com/jeangill

OVER TO YOU If you have further tips about using photography, please feel free to share them.

How #selfpub #authors should source and use photos by @writerjeangill Click To Tweet

 

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27 Responses to How to Source and Use Photos in Self-published Book Covers

  1. Darlon Shelter June 9, 2016 at 8:27 pm #

    Hi Jean Gill, I must confess to you that so far I had no problem with using photos on the covers of my books, even as I am illustrator, and sometimes get a picture to illustrate the cover of
    a book is very complicated, especially when working with copyright, payments etc. etc.
    The cover of my book “Lenita” was illustrated by myself, and the result could not have been better. But also, I give reason to these professionals who sell their photos. After all, most of them are living on account of their photos, is not it?
    A big hug.
    PS. Take a look at the cover of my eBook “Lenita” published by the KDP and then tell me what you thought about it.

  2. Shana Gorian May 7, 2016 at 7:01 pm #

    How about using a photo ‘nicked off google’ on social media pages such as Facebook or Twitter, when the intent there is just to ‘share’ it rather than make money from it? (ie. book jacket etc.) What are the laws there? I’ve always wondered.

    • Jean Gill May 9, 2016 at 6:00 am #

      A book jacket copyright usually belongs to the publisher, with permission to use it given to the author, but of course they’re usually happy for you to publicise the book so are unlikely to worry about free promotion. However, before amazon owned goodreads amazon banned goodreads from using its book cover thumbnails and goodreads had to take them all down – so the law is not on your side if there’s a complaint.

      ‘nicked off google’ should not be in inverted commas – nicked is nicked – but I take your point re sharing and as a publisher I certainly don’t mind – you have my permission to share all of my book jackets as often as you like 🙂

  3. Runwright April 1, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

    Great subject. I just self published my first book and I used a drawing I made for the cover to avoid all of that drama. I’ll save that for my next publications.
    If anyone is interested, you can check out my book here: http://runwright.net/2016/03/29/the-next-few-days/

    • Jean Gill April 2, 2016 at 9:42 am #

      Yes, your own drawing is probably safe although I don’t know how the rights of human subjects, copyrights of buildings etc, applies to drawings/paintings? I suspect it’s still safer to get models’ permission in writing for the use intended.

  4. Clare Weiner March 18, 2016 at 7:45 pm #

    Jean, a question: I have sometimes used photos of my now-deceased family members … I am talking of my grandparents’ or great grandparents’ generation, and the photos go back into the early 20th or even 19th century. Is there any problem with this? They are mine (by inheritance) – but then it occurs to me, of course these people have other decedents! Would there be a potential problem of any kind?

    • Jean Gill March 19, 2016 at 6:35 am #

      Clare’s question about old photos raises some interesting points. If they are are as old as that, I don’t see a problem, Clare. These are the 2 questions to consider when you use existing photos; the photographer’s rights and the subjects’ rights. I go by the law that a photo, like a book, is in the public domain 70 years after the author/photographer’s death and not before that. Earlier than that, if the photographer is known, permission to publish is required from the author/photographer or his/her estate. If unknown, you can honestly say you tried to find out and that’s fair enough.

      As to the subjects, if they are dead and you are their heir then you have the right to publish the photos. I don’t see that it matters if other heirs also have copies of the photos and the same rights – they too can publish those photos if they want.

  5. Linda Austin March 18, 2016 at 6:24 pm #

    Great article, Jean, and I will share it around, I think on my website Resources page, too. I want to add that, at least in the US, some places like botanical gardens and parks are now requiring permission (and payment) to use photos taken on their grounds for commercial purposes, particularly if any object, structure, feature or even peculiarly identifiable tree appears in the photo. I did not know that photos not showing peoples’ faces still need their permission to use on the cover of a book. And I guess editorial use means use only on the inside of a nonfiction book or maybe on a nonfiction blog post (or else get permission).

    • Jean Gill March 19, 2016 at 6:22 am #

      Thank you! Restriction on rights in some parks is interesting. There are more and more restrictions in general! Usually if entry is free, photographs for any use is permitted. Photos taken on private property often require permission, preferably a ‘property release’ signed by the owner if the place is recognizable, even for editorial use. if the If the place is not identifiable is often an issue Sometimes it’s permitted

  6. Suzanne Jenkins March 18, 2016 at 3:54 pm #

    Fantastic piece! I buy the artwork I use from Shutterstock or artists, but sometimes I want photos to use in trailers I make on Animoto. Wonderful information and sources! Thank you so much.

    • Jean Gill March 19, 2016 at 6:14 am #

      Glad it was helpful!

      • Donna Louise O'ferrall June 14, 2016 at 1:26 pm #

        Hi how do you upload your own picture ie a black and white photo that you own to make into a book cover please. I am so pleased i have read your article as I have also been given permission from a photographer to pay him for the beautiful print and use this as my second book cover but i really don’t know what the next step is all help and guidance on this will be appreciated thank you

  7. Alastair Batchelor March 18, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    I usually use photos listed as “free to use,” or some similar term. Does this mean that these are not subject to the rules you mentioned. I searched for these images with the very best of intentions and was on at least one occasion unable to find find anyone linked to the image I used.
    You are right, it is a minefield especially for the uninitiated.

    • Jean Gill March 18, 2016 at 10:39 am #

      There are some very good sites which offer free images for commercial use but all images are subject to the rules I mentioned so you need to check the site you get images from. If it’s a reputable site then THEY have the necessary rights (photographer permission and model releases) to license those images to you for the use it says on the site.

  8. Jean Gill March 18, 2016 at 8:47 am #

    Thanks, Alison! I do sometimes feel insulted on behalf of fellow-photographers but many of the posts I’ve read from authors show a lack of understanding and knowledge more than wilful contempt. What shocked me – and prompted the article – was how many people were appalled at the fine for breaking the law and thought that ‘if caught, you should pay the market price of the photo’. It’s as if somebody travelled on trains regularly without ever buying a ticket, and expected to pay the usual ticket price if caught – that’s hardly a deterrent nor fair compensation to the travel company – or, in this case, photographer!

  9. Alison Morton March 18, 2016 at 7:35 am #

    Thank goodness for this article! I get blue in the face explaining to people that they can’t just nick a photo from Google and use it willly-nilly. They look at me as if I am mad. I use my own photos without people or with crowds for my blog. Or from a royalty free library. For my book trailers, I buy in the photos if I haven’t a suitable shot for the storyboard.
    My DH is a keen photographer and goes ballistic if somebody pins or pinches any of his work. And he’s not a professional. Goodness knows how you must feel, Jean!

    • Clare Weiner March 18, 2016 at 7:40 pm #

      Yes, Alison, I use my own photos as well, and have experienced people who think they can just nick stuff off the web. Was furious and concerned when someone nicked one of mine – years ago – because back then I was less knowledgable and had included 2 people in my photo – without names – and this person had put it on their blog WITH the names! He tried to argue that everything on the web was up for grabs … not so, but people persuade themselves … (My blog features photos of cats, but not individuals … how long till my cats object?)

  10. Karen Inglis March 17, 2016 at 10:50 pm #

    Great post — thank you very much, Jean! And a lovely photo too!

  11. JJ Toner March 17, 2016 at 9:41 pm #

    Wow! That was really helpful. Thank you, Jean. I never really understood the legal ins and out of using photos. I mostly use my own plus stock images that my cover designer sources. I didn’t know that buildings could be copyrighted!

    • Jean Gill March 18, 2016 at 8:36 am #

      It’s a real minefield and photo copyright changes all the time. Glad it was useful!

  12. Jo Nicoletti March 17, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

    Your article scares the pants of me. You tell us the rules but unless I have skipped something I don’t see information on how to source the artist/photographer . I am a simple soul so I like my information to be just as simple

    Jo

    • Christine March 18, 2016 at 7:25 am #

      I’m a graphic designer and have this conversation with clients all the time. As said in the article if you use a paid photolibrary service you can read the terms and conditions of use, the photographers name will be displayed alongside of the image, and all model sign offs will have been done for you. It is by far the safest option. It’s also worth noting that where possible buy images large if there is any chance you will use if for print items. It will need to be 300dpi (dots per inch) and also bear in mind some images will be really popular and you could find a lot of other people using them

      • Jean Gill March 18, 2016 at 9:25 am #

        Good advice! Istockphoto has changed its buying policy so that nowadays all image sizes are the same price so it makes sense to always buy the largest size.

    • Jean Gill March 18, 2016 at 8:35 am #

      It is a complicated subject, Jo and I’d rather scare the pants off you than read your blog on paying thousands to settle out of court for a photo you had no rights to use (there have been a couple of blogs like that recently!) ‘Source’ is just the business term for ‘get’ so it’s all about where you get photos. The article gives some free sites or you can contact a photographer directly (there are several photographer friends among my facebook friends), or buy photos via reputable stock photography sites (I’m with istockphoto).

    • Jean Gill March 18, 2016 at 9:47 am #

      I replied in the main thread, Jo, because I’m sure others feel likewise!

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