Legal and Ethical Implications of Product Images on E-Commerce Stores

Have you ever heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”? It’s true. Images are powerful and can have a massive impact on your business. Whether in the form of product photos or images representing your brand, you need to know how to use them effectively and understand the basics of copyright laws.

copyright vs public domain - legal and ethical implications of product images on e-commerce stores
Image created by Market Business News.

This article will discuss several ways of how you can ethically and legally use images on your website.

Using Images Taken by Other Individuals

Always give credit where credit is due! Never use someone else’s work without their permission. You can run into trouble with violating copyright laws if you don’t ask for approval.

However, the good news is that there are a few ways you can freely use an image taken by someone else without asking for permission.

  • You’ve modified the photo enough so that it no longer resembles the original
  • The image is in the public domain due to its age (i.e., it was taken more than 70 years ago)
  • You are using the work for educational purposes (educational use is legal and does not need to have permission from a copyright holder before use)
  • The photo’s original creator has already permitted you to use their work publicly

How to Obtain Permission for Images

To obtain permission, you’ll have to contact the original creator. While this can be

time-consuming, it beats running into legal hot water. If the photo you want to use is on social media like Facebook or Instagram, the original owner has already permitted their work to be used publicly because these images are considered part of the public domain.

If the image is not on any social media site, you should contact the creator and ask for permission. Check their “about” page or website for their name and email so that you can send them a message. You may also be able to find information about contacting the creator on Google using keywords from the image description.

What If I Don’t Get Permission?

Don’t assume that asking forgiveness is easier than asking for permission. You will probably be asked to take the image down or pay for its use in the best-case scenario. But in the worst case, you may end up getting sued.

It’s very tempting to skip asking for permission because of the amount of effort it takes to locate someone and wait for their response. But this lack of action is not worth it. Other than legal problems, it could also ruin your reputation. Put simply, just don’t do it!

Always ask for permission, and if you can’t get it, whether it’s due to being denied permission or you just can’t locate the original creator, move on and try another photo.

The Difference Between Copyrighted and Public Domain Images

Copyrighted images are protected by copyright law. This means that the creator of a copyrighted image retains the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, and license it. In order to use someone else’s copyrighted work for commercial purposes (i.e., like for your online store), you’ll need to get their permission because only they can sell it or allow others to do so with their permission.

Public domain images are not protected by copyright law as a result of being in the public domain. This means you can do whatever you want with them without asking for anyone’s permission. You can use these images without worry of getting sued on your blog posts, website, or any other form that represent your brand identity.

Three Ways You Can Legally Use Photos without Asking for Permission

Stock Photos

You can find free stock photos legally and ethically on the website This source may be beneficial if you operate a blog or are in some way trying to make an image go viral–whether by using it as an ad campaign or simply as social media content. Basically, you can use these images in any way you want.

Your Own Photography

You can always use your own original photography in two ways: you can take your own images or hire someone else to do it for you and grant you the rights to the photos or give you permission to use, or you can modify the photo enough that it no longer resembles the original work.

Hiring a Professional Photographer

If you do hire someone, be clear on the usage rights of the photos in the contract. For example, at Clothing and Product Photography Studio in Los Angeles, they give their customers exclusive permission to use the images on their websites. However, no one else, other than the original photographers and the purchasing customer, has a right to use the images without obtaining permission.

Only Use Images that Are Relevant to Your Brand

This is just plain common sense, but it needs to be mentioned: only use images on your site relevant to your brand or products sold in your store. This may not be an issue if you’re using original photography you own. However, when purchasing stock photos or using ones from the public domain, be sure that the image’s content accurately reflects what you do.

For example, if you sell men’s watches or operate a blog about men’s watches, then don’t use images that show other content, such as a basic image of a beach (with no watch). Your beach image will confuse users and hurt your business. Also, include descriptions in your photos detailing what the product is about or what it does, or even writing a short paragraph about the related image. Taking these steps will be more useful to potential customers and make it more likely that they will take an action that’s valuable to you.

Wrapping It Up

Images are a vital part of your marketing strategy. But before uploading an image to your online store, be mindful of copyright laws. Is the image in the public domain, or does it require obtaining permission from the original creator? If it is in the public domain, it’s still courteous to give credit to the original creator. You can link to their profile or just mention the name, and there’s a good chance they will appreciate the nice gesture.

If you are using someone else’s image that you obtained from a social media site like Instagram, the photo already exists in the public domain. But, always use appropriate attribution and give credit. If you want to avoid all this hassle in the first place, then it’s just better to use your own original photography. The main point in all of this is to practice good judgment and treat images as property.

Interesting related article: “What is Intellectual Property?