This is not legal advice, just information based on my years as an author and designer.
If you are using images for commercial purposes, book design in particular, you need to be sure that you have the appropriate rights for whatever you’re doing. Regardless if you’re using images in good faith, or because a designer put them on your book, YOU will be the one in violation of copyright if you do not have the legal right to use the image because it’s on your product/book.
Part of the difficulty is that when you are using a photo, there are at least 2 layers of copyright, or possibly trademark, involved. The rights of the image and the rights of what the image is OF including location, people, buildings, vehicles, tattoos, etc.
So, if you have an image of a girl wearing brand name clothing with logos visible, with a guy with tats, beside a car, in front of a building, there are at least the following rights at play:
- The photographer needs to agree to allow their work to be used.
- The girl and the guy need to agree to have their images used – model release needed.
- Branded clothing falls under trademark law and cannot be used without express permission from each brand – or the designer may remove identifying marks.
- The tattoo artist(s) needs to sign a release for their work to be used – property release needed.
- Cars can be subject to copyright and trademark law.
- Buildings can be subject to the rights of the owner and architect. Property releases are needed.
It can be very complex.
Paid stock sites vet the images they list on their sites and ensure that model and property releases are on file, and that the images do not violate copyright or trademark law. And, may offer some indemnification/ protection if they list the rights of an image inappropriately. They also clearly list images for commercial versus editorial use (don’t use the latter!).
Free sites do not.
When you purchase a license from a reputable stock site, they will often have at least 2 levels of license that you can purchase. Standard and extended, or something to that effect. Sites vary on what’s allowed under each, so it’s important to read the licensing information where you’re purchasing the image. And, if you’re confused, because they’re written for legality, not clarity, then contact the company and ask. Also, screen shot the conversation and/or keep those emails just in case.
Typically, for use on book covers, the standard license is sufficient up to a number of print books sold (500,000 for Deposit Photos) and unlimited digital use. When you get into merchandise, for free or sale, then you need the extended license.
If you have hired, or are planning to hire a designer to create something for you, you will want to make sure that they ethically source their images. Again, if your book violates copyright, then it is you who are liable as it’s you who is benefiting from the use of that image.
I hear all the time that people use free stock with no issue. And, I’m sure that’s true – they haven’t been caught, yet. But, there are also people who have been sued, and lost, because they used what they didn’t know to be stolen photos from a free site.
And, because I also see this question a lot: No, you can’t just pull images off of a Google search. Just because something is able to be seen for free on the internet, does not negate any applicable copyright laws. You can see many images of my artwork on my website, for example, but that doesn’t give you any right to use them at all for any reason without my permission.
I’m not telling you what you should do, that’s entirely up to you. But, I do want you to make an informed choice, and to prevent, if possible, a significant loss to you or your business because you didn’t know the risks and complexity involved.