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Free Internet Fish and the Public Domain

Linda told me she found the beautiful picture of fish on the internet. It was perfect for the project she was working on. It was 1996 and the web was rapidly moving into a visual realm after being text based. It was a bonanza of “free” content, photos, illustration and text.

Linda claimed that no one would ever know she used the picture in her print project. At the time I questioned her ethics. She should have known better. It irked me that some illustrator somewhere was getting cheated out of compensation for use of their art. At the time, those of us working in the advertising industry purchased images through “image houses”, or directly from artists and photographers. But the web was still so new that I figured her chances of getting caught were slim. She wasn’t. Years later my partner and I still refer to the naïve use of pictures found on the internet as simply “internet fish”.

It amazes me that even today people will tell me that that they can go to Google Images and find a boat load of pictures, they’re “in the public domain” and they’re free.


Never consider an image found in Google Images to be in the public domain, and don’t use it for commercial purposes unless you’re prepared to pay the piper. Corbis Images and Getty Images, two of the big players in licensed imagery actively chase copyright infringements – to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Their sophisticated searching abilities can sniff out a digitally watermarked image even after it’s been altered. The search results you get on Google Images are pulled indiscriminately from all over the web.

There are plenty of places where one can license the use of images – legitimately. Licenses are granted based on how you intend to use the picture, and how the artist or stock agency chooses to make it available. They even have fish!

It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the licensing agreement which you are required to consent to before you download an image from a stock agency.

The term public domain refers to images that are no longer bound by copyrights, and can be a gray area of intellectual property law. So the next time you go fishing for images I recommend you don’t attempt to navigate these waters unless you’re a lawyer.

Posted by Kristy Ewing on August 14, 2010

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