Photo Copyrights, and the Importance of Shooting B Roll

When it comes to the type of images a writer might need for a blog or online article, the sky’s the limit.

16G19 B Roll

The problem is, where do you get a picture of clouds that doesn’t violate someone else’s copyright?

Copyright attaches to photographs at the time of creation, and belongs to the photographer who shot the image (or, in some cases, the client who hired the photographer to create works for hire). You cannot use someone else’s image without a license, unless the image is released into the public domain–and you must be able to prove that status.

In other words: you cannot simply pull someone else’s photographs from the Internet and use them, even on a blog that earns no money.

So what’s an author-blogger to do?

Some authors subscribe to paid photography services that give access to image libraries. For a fee (and, in some cases, for free on a more limited basis) authors can use the images in these libraries for book covers, blogs, and other creative endeavors. Some services work on a “pay as you go” basis, licensing individual images, while others allow authors to pay a monthly (or annual) fee for unlimited image use.

Some authors use only images they can confirm have entered the public domain, either due to copyright expiration or copyright release by the photographer or copyright owner. Once an image has entered the public domain, it’s free to use and it isn’t copyright infringement to use it for blogs, book covers, and other creative works. The U.S. Library of Congress has an extensive collection of images, many of which are in the public domain and thus completely free to download and use. (Here’s a link to their Japanese collection.) 

However, beware of websites that state their image collections are public domain. Some are legitimate, but others may contain stolen or copyright-infringing images uploaded accidentally (or, in rare cases, on purpose by devious individuals wanting to cause trouble). When in doubt, don’t use the image. You will be legally liable for copyright infringement even if the infringement was accidental.

The best solution of all is to create the images yourself. Most people have a mobile device that includes a camera function. When out and about, take photographs of everything from rocks to flowers to automobiles (be sure to blur any license plates you capture – or, better still, take photos where the license plate doesn’t show).

You also need to be careful when photographing people–rights of privacy/rights of publicity often apply to the use of people’s images, and you generally can’t use recognizable people’s images for your personal profit without their consent. For that reason, many bloggers (including me!) blur the faces of recognizable strangers who appear in their pictures — because consent to use their images has not been obtained. When taking photos, avoid photographing people or blur their images if you want to be entirely safe.

I refer to this habit of taking photos of various objects and places as “shooting my own B roll” – and it’s a habit every author and blogger should adopt.

In film and television, camera crews shoot a combination of “A roll” – the scenes involving the actors, hosts, or primary subjects of the film or television program – and “B roll” – still and moving shots of background, interesting objects, and other items that are used in post-production to enhance the film, as well as for bumpers and introductory scenes.

By shooting your own B roll when you’re out and about, you’re establishing a photo library of images you own, which you can use for any and every purpose, from cover art to blogging and beyond.

Need a coffee mug for a post on your favorite morning beverage?

16B19 Coffee mug


Writing a blog about stopping to smell the flowers? The B(ee) roll can help there, too:

16G19 Bee

Don’t limit your photographs to family functions, historical sites and lovely landscapes–though they’re certainly useful too. Start photographing that B-roll now. It won’t take long to build a photo library all your own.

16B19 happy bowl

Like this bowl, you’ll be glad you did.