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Can you get sued for a picture?

Yes, in many cases you can get sued for using a picture without permission. The laws around copyright, publicity rights, and privacy determine if and when you can be sued for a picture. Understanding these laws is important for anyone sharing images online or in printed materials.

Copyright Law

Copyright law protects original works like photographs from being used without permission. The photographer who took the picture automatically holds the copyright as soon as the work is fixed in a tangible form. That means as soon as the photograph is taken, the copyright belongs to the photographer.

To use a copyrighted photo you always need permission from the photographer. If you use a copyrighted photo without permission, the photographer can sue you for copyright infringement. Damages in a copyright infringement lawsuit can include actual damages, lost profits, statutory damages up to $150,000 per image, and attorney’s fees.

There are some exceptions to copyright called “fair use” which allow limited use of copyrighted works without permission. To qualify as fair use, the use must be transformative, not commercial, minimal, and not harmful to the copyright owner’s market for the work. Fair use is determined on a case-by-case basis, but generally posting full-sized photos found online will not qualify as fair use.

Ways You Can Be Sued for Copyright Infringement

  • Posting a photo you found online on a blog or social media profile
  • Using a stock photo without purchasing the proper license
  • Including copyrighted photos in a book, advertisement, or other publication without permission
  • Altering a photo and sharing it without permission from the original photographer

Publicity Rights

Publicity rights laws protect a person’s image and likeness from being commercially exploited without their consent. This means you need permission to use someone’s name, image, or likeness for commercial purposes like advertising and merchandise.

If you use someone’s image or name on products, in ads, on merchandise, or in other commercial ways without their consent, they may be able to sue you for violating their publicity rights. Damages can include licensing fees, lost profits, and punitive damages.

Ways You Can Be Sued for Violating Publicity Rights

  • Using a photo of a celebrity to promote a product or event without their consent
  • Putting a person’s photo on merchandise like t-shirts or coffee mugs without their approval
  • Using someone’s name or likeness in an advertisement without permission
  • Selling merchandise with a celebrity’s signature or catchphrase without approval

Privacy Laws

Privacy laws protect people from having private information about them shared without their consent. This includes private facts, embarrassing information, and images taken in private places.

If you use a photo or information about someone’s private life, like medical history or love life, without their permission, they can sue you for invasion of privacy. Damages may include compensation for emotional distress.

Ways You Can Be Sued for Invasion of Privacy

  • Sharing private images taken without the subject’s consent
  • Posting facts and details about someone’s private life without approval
  • Using photos or recordings taken in a private place like a home without permission
  • Sharing medical images or health data without consent

Avoiding Lawsuits

To avoid potential lawsuits over images, always follow these best practices:

  • Only use photos you took yourself or have explicit permission to use
  • Read licenses carefully before using stock photos
  • Don’t use photos with identifiable people for commercial purposes without model releases
  • Alter images sufficiently if you don’t have a model release
  • Immediately take down content if requested by the image owner
  • Purchase adequate media liability insurance in case a lawsuit arises

Fair Use

In limited situations, you may be able use copyrighted images without permission under fair use doctrine. To qualify as fair use, the use must meet these criteria:

  • Transformative – the image is altered in a new creative way or used for a different purpose than the original
  • Not commercial – the use is not for profit or advertising
  • Minimal – only a small portion of the image is used
  • No harm to market – won’t replace potential sales of the original image

Examples of fair use could include:

  • Commenting on the image in a news report or blog post
  • Altering the image significantly to create a meme or parody
  • Using a brief clip within a documentary for educational purposes

However, fair use is decided on a case-by-case basis, so you should always get permission when possible to reduce legal risks.

Creative Commons

Some photographers release images under Creative Commons licenses. This allows others to use their photos for free under certain conditions, like attribution, noncommercial use, or no derivatives.

Creative Commons images can be used without permission as long as you comply with the terms of the specific license. Make sure to check the license for each image before using.

Public Domain

Works in the public domain can be used freely without permission. Photos enter the public domain after the copyright term expires, which is typically 70 years after the death of the creator.

Very old photos taken before 1923 are in the public domain. You can use public domain images for any purpose without worrying about copyright issues.

Working with a Lawyer

Because image laws can be complex, it’s a good idea to consult an intellectual property lawyer if you have questions about using a particular photo. A lawyer can review the context and advise you on risks, protections, and steps to minimize liability.

A lawyer can also assist you with getting permissions, licensing imagery, and registering your own copyrights. Having an attorney review your insurance coverage is wise as well.

Working with an IP lawyer is the best way to ensure you are legally in the clear to use any images in your projects and products.


Using an image without the proper permissions opens you up to potential copyright, publicity rights, and privacy lawsuits. Always get permission directly from the photographer or rights holder before using any photo you did not create. Stay mindful of image laws to avoid legal problems from improperly using photos online or in print.