How to do a Google image search (and why you might want to)

Jane has a great post at Dear Author today about copyright issues for photographs and other images. As anyone who has visited blogs and review sites has probably noticed, people are much more cavalier about using copyrighted images to illustrate their posts than they are about appropriating text. For whatever reason, authors, reviewers, and readers who are outraged about the copyright infringement of books don’t always make the connection that appropriation without permission is wrong in other creative domains as well.

This issue was highlighted earlier this month when Roni Loren wrote about how the copyright holder of an image she’d used demanded a fee for use, even after she apologized and took it down.┬áJane lays out the ways you can find photos to use that are public domain, have Creative Commons licenses, or are available for a minimal fee. In addition to the sources she provides in her post, there are additional suggestions in the comments.

But sometimes you want to use a photo and you can’t easily find who controls the rights. For these cases, I thought it might be helpful to discuss how you can trace the provenance of a photo you see on the internet.

During the GR kerfuffle over the predatory author, questions emerged about his real age. Some of the numbers being thrown around made it clear that the photo he used in his GR avatar and elsewhere couldn’t possibly be a current photo and might not even be of him. I decided to see if I could trace the photo to another source. It took about 15 minutes to discover that the photo was of someone else and that the author’s use was probably infringing. This infringement was subsequently confirmed by the copyright holder.

Probably as a result of the copyright holder’s new awareness of this unauthorized and fraudulent use of his work, the search has changed since I first conducted it. It’s still clear that the photo is of someone other than the other and I can trace the portfolio whence the photo came to the actual copyright holder, but I can’t reproduce the original search for you. But fear not, I have other examples! People put up fake photos of themselves on the internet all the time! Here’s one of an (erstwhile) aspiring m/m author using someone else’s photos.

There was a major kerfuffle during the last few weeks and months in the m/m writer community. A new gay male writer with a fascinating personal history appeared on the scene and was welcomed into the community. But after a while he began to say extremely insulting things about women writing m/m. The level of abuse escalated, and people began to try and figure out who he was. Eventually his probable real identity was outed in a blog post. His blog and Facebook page were deleted, but there were still interviews with him floating around the web, and these were frequently illustrated with photos that were presumably of him. In one interview there were three photos. I was curious about how easy it would have been to check and see if the photos were authentic.

I downloaded the photos from the interview page (right-click or control-click and “save image as”). Then I went to Google’s search page for images. At the right side of the search bar there is a camera icon:

I dragged the first photo I had downloaded into the search bar. The photo uploaded and the search results gave me all the places Google could find where the photo appeared. Some of these were the ones I had already seen, i.e., the interview and some other sites. Others looked like unauthorized uses of the photos. And be careful clicking through if you don’t recognize the site, some of them are extremely NSFW.

When I repeated the upload-and-search procedure with all the photos, I found that they came from three different sites. One was a PSA-type site on addictions. The second was a stock photo site. And the third was a studio photo taken by a professional photographer. At least two of these were extremely unlikely to be authorized use, and probably all three were unauthorized. They also appeared to be of different people.

The search took me less than an hour. Moral: If someone seems too beautiful to be true, they may well be. In the GR author example, Michael, the model, is a beautiful man. But he is not the GR author. In the second example, none of the three different (!) men in the photographs is the author. But the author was claiming to be a 20-something, handsome man, and they all fit that bill.

One final point: if you are using photographs where there is a clear human subject, there are constraints on how that subject can be used. That’s why professional photographers get something called a model release. If you can’t determine the specific terms of the release, you don’t know for certain whether the model has approved the type of use you want even if the photographer has granted permission. So you have a double-bind: find the copyright holder and get permission, and ensure that the release covers the type of use you’re going to make of it. This isn’t usually an issue if you’re using the photo for non-commercial purposes. But for authors using photos on their professional websites and author blogs, and maybe even for reviewers who generate revenue, the bar may be higher.

If all this makes you feel as if you can’t put a photo on your site unless you took it yourself, it’s not that bad. Really! There are plenty of CC-friendly and public domain photos out there. And if you or other members of your family take digital photos, you probably have some lovely ones available that you haven’t thought to use. My various header photos have been taken by me or TheHusband, and if I forget to take a photo for a recipe (which is most of the time), I can usually find a public-domain photo of the main ingredient in Wikipedia or somewhere comparable (Wikipedia photos tell you the copyright status of each photo if you go to its page).

[UPDATE: Per Catherine Noon’s comment below, I want to reiterate that there are plenty of professional photographers who know exactly what kind of release to obtain and are going to sell their photographs in ways that comport with that release. Do business with a member of that group and you should be fine.]

8 thoughts on “How to do a Google image search (and why you might want to)

  1. The model release thing is new to me, and I think it could potentially be problematic for self-publishing authors (like me) who’ve bought images to use on their cover art. It never occurred to me that I would need to check that I have the model’s permission as well as the photographer’s.

    • People who know this area of law better than I are encouraged to correct me, but it seems to me that if you’re getting images from places that are known to provide book and other cover art, you should be fine because they are likely have obtained appropriate releases. The problems arise when photographs taken for entirely different purposes (or under different conditions) then get used in ways the subject didn’t intend (and presumably didn’t provide a release for).

  2. If the photographer is licensing the image, the photographer must have a model release. If you are using the image in accordance with the license provisions granted you by the photographer (usually established if, for example, you purchase the photograph), you do not need to secure permission of the model as well. In order for the photographer to license the image for use, they must have a signed model release and/or it is shot in a public location and does not require a model release. As the end-user, you do not need to secure permission from the model. If the photographer has not secured a release, but licenses the image to you anyway, the *photographer* is liable, not you, for suit. (Per my hub, pro photographer.) If you’d like to see one of his professional model releases, he authorized me to share it. (He’s at

  3. Thanks very much for that information, Catherine, and for the link.

    I also get the impression it depends on the photographer, i.e., if the photographer has obtained the proper release you’re fine, but there have been cases where a photographer claimed to have a particular type of release and the subject argued otherwise, as in this 2010 case discussed on Rebecca Tushnet’s blog. The defendants also argued that their use of the photograph fell under the “art” exception. The court disagreed, saying the primary purpose of the book cover was commercial.

    Here is the Stanford University Fair Use explanation of different types of releases.

  4. A bit off topic, but I can’t help asking about the recent m/m thing. I missed everything about it (which is probably a good thing, there are so many kerfuffles my brain would explode trying to keep up with them all), but I’d like to know who the author in question is (pen name?). I know this may sound petty of me but I really don’t feel the need to read books by someone who goes around insulting people.

  5. @Kaetrin and @Eva: The m/m author is not published, so you don’t have to worry about accidentally buying his books. I didn’t link to the blogs that outed him because I try not to out anyone who hasn’t harmed or insulted me directly (and I don’t usually out them either). I don’t blame the m/m authors who did out him, because they *were* directly harmed by his behavior. If you want to read the story in more detail, just Google “Matthew Darringer” and look at the blogs that discuss him.

  6. OMG, this is amazing! I have such a major stash of costume pics that I’ve assembled over the years and not really kept track of their provenance (since they were originally only for my own reference). This will help me find out where the heck I got them!!!

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