Image permissions are one area where I advise authors to be careful. If you include a photo, illustration, or another image in your book without understanding its copyright, the image’s owners can send you a cease-and-desist to compel you to remove their image—or even worse, they may sue!
Fortunately, it’s easy to learn the fundamentals of image permissions. Now, this doesn’t cover the full extent of copyright laws. However, I’m here to teach you the importance of terminology, how to obtain images legally, and when you should consult an attorney.
The Keywords of Image Permissions
The cornerstone of image permissions is copyright. Under U.S. law, a copyright is an intellectual property that protects the owner’s right to an original, fixed work, such as an image.
Usually, a work’s creator gains ownership of the work’s copyright. So, if you take a photograph of your garden for your photography book, then you’re the copyright owner.
But what if you want to use an image and don’t have the copyright?
First, check if an image is in the public domain. Public domain means anyone can use the image without permission. A work enters the public domain if it’s old enough or the creator intentionally places it there.
In these cases, double-check before using an image, but public domain images are especially useful if they’re relevant to your book’s subject.
However, what if an image is still under copyright law? Look into fair use when one is allowed to use work even under intellectual property law. Sadly, this is more complicated, but you’re more likely to be able to use an image under fair use if your book is noncommercial or for a nonprofit educational context.
But if you intend to sell a book, especially for entertainment purposes, then your opportunities for fair use are more limited.
In many cases, your ability to use an image in your book will likely come down to requesting permission from the copyright holder. This can be a complex process, but it’s safer than relying on fair use, and you’d earn both legal protection and the good graces of the image owner.
How to Obtain Images for Your Book
You may also be interested in finding artwork for your book cover or finding an illustration for the interior.
As previously mentioned, the most legally straightforward way of obtaining an image is by creating it yourself. By doing so, you control how the image appears and own the copyright.
However, not all authors have the talent to create an image up to fluff. If you aren’t already a cover designer, I recommend not designing your cover, as a bad cover can alienate potential readers.
Another way of getting images is to get stock photos. Stock photos are made to serve many purposes; many are royalty-free and free to obtain. Some websites I sometimes peruse for this blog include Unsplash, Pixabay, and Pexels.
Royalty-free images are nifty in having no strings attached, but the downside is that no strings attached mean anyone can use these images. Then if you decide to use free stock photos for your cover art, you risk customers recognizing your image from somewhere else and dismissing you as a cheapskate.
Of course, getting a paid stock photo means paying money for permission, but you’re less likely to share a similar cover as another author, especially if you buy exclusive rights. Just check the license when you pay for a photo; some licenses may limit how you can use the image and for how long.
The last option is to commission an image. You can reach out to an artist and sign a contract for them to create an image to your liking. For many authors, this is the best option: you can have a professional create an image and tailor the contract to obtain the rights you want for the image from the creator.
But with paid stock art, the downside to commissions is still money, and you must oversee negotiating the contract. However, you could alleviate this if you barter with a mutual connection by offering some of your writing services to pay for the commission.
When to get a professional for permissions
Sometimes, you can’t handle permissions on your own, especially if you must obtain a specific image for your book.
At this point, it’s prudent to consult a permissions lawyer or another expert on book permissions. Fortunately, many attorneys are open to giving a free consultation before taking your case, but consider how much you’re willing to pay.
And this is when one of the perks of traditional publishing comes in: if your book gets acquired by a press, they’re likely to have a rights and permissions manager, or even an entire department,
that can work to secure that image. Just be prepared to learn that paying for a specific permission may be too much for their budget.
But if you’re aiming for a small press or self-publishing, don’t fret. There are many ways to obtain images for your book without breaking the law, especially if you’re open to using a different option. After all, the image is not what will make your book successful, but rather your writing.
Over to you: What’s YOUR experience with including images in YOUR book? What options are YOU considering the most for obtaining images?
ABOUT ELIZABETH JAVOR: With over 20 years of experience in sales and management, Elizabeth Javor works as the Director of Sales and Marketing for Outskirts Press. The Sales and Marketing departments are composed of knowledgeable publishing consultants, customer service reps and book marketing specialists; together, they all focus on educating authors on the self-publishing process to help them publish the book of their dreams. Whether you are a professional looking to take your career to the next level with platform-driven non-fiction or a novelist seeking fame, fortune, and/or personal fulfillment, Elizabeth Javor can put you on the right path.