By Andrew Hudson Published: August 13, 2012 Updated: September 19, 2014
Pictures from Google Images or elsewhere on the Internet are often protected by copyright. Even if the photos do not include the photographer’s name or contact number, you can not generally sell or otherwise use for profit recent photos that you find on the Web.
A good example of what can happen is the case of the Barack Obama “Hope” poster. Artist Shepard Fairey based his famous poster on an image he found using Google Image Search. The source image was a photo taken in 1996 by freelancer Mannie Garcia for The Associated Press (AP) as a work made for hire. When Fairey started making money from sales of the poster, the AP insisted that “its use required permission.” Fairey replied with a lawsuit against the AP seeking a declaratory judgment of fair use, but the judge stated that “whether it’s sooner or later, The Associated Press is going to win” Fairey was forced to settle in 2011, and the AP stated they would “share the rights to make the posters and merchandise bearing the Hope image and … the parties have agreed to additional financial terms that will remain confidential.”
Old photos may be free to use if they are in the public domain. In the U.S., this applies to photos taken before 1923, and photos taken between 1923 and 1976 that were not registered and/or renewed. For most current photos, any use for financial gain may be copyright infringement. To use such an image, contact the photographer for permission. They may give you a “non-exclusive license” for the application you are after. Alternatively, license a similar image from a microstock agency.