Is It Okay to Use an Image from Google for My Book Cover?

Boys and girls, sit tight because I’m going to tell you all about why not to use Google images for book covers.

For some, Google Images is a free-for-all playground. If it’s on Google it must be free, right? Well, no. Do you think everything you find on Google is free? Do you think that every site you browse is free for you to take apart and run away with? Even academic papers? Well, you’re in for a good wake up call.

A black-and-white cartoon, the first panel captioned "hahahahahahahahaha" and the second captioned "no."

I’ve seen this question pop up very often on Facebook and on the NaNoWriMo forums, lately, and I really feel the need to address it. People are making themselves liable for lawsuit just for the sake of a book cover. People are often ignorant about what they can use and what not…and to be honest, that should never be the case. We’re in the age of information, you can simply Google just to make sure. But most people never do…and then they end up getting sued and publicly humiliated because they couldn’t take five minutes of their day to see if what they’re doing is right or not.

Believe me, no temporary fancy you have for a photograph is worth the humiliation and stress of a lawsuit and the thousands of dollars they can get out of you.

Why not?

So, why should you not use images from Google as your covers?

  1. You’re not sure about the ownership of the images. They may be free, they may be not. In 99% of the cases, they’re not, and you might get sued for the right to use that image. Photographers, artists, and other visual content creators take pride in their work. Using it without their permission and without giving them their due is like stealing a car from the manufacturer. Sure, you like the car and how it drives, but you’re essentially stealing.
  2. They can come get you, and it’s going to leave you humiliated and with your pockets empty. Copyright law is a real thing, and unless you’re savvy on the different degrees of creative commons licenses, you should refrain from just taking stuff of Google images.
  3. Even if you say you were ignorant by innocence or by “fair use,” nobody cares. They’re still going to label you a thief and come after you in court.
  4. You can be held liable even if you don’t use the images in a commercial setting!

But I’m doing it just for fun!

It’s no excuse that you’re doing it for fun. You are using someone else’s property for your own means without asking permission or giving them their due. With the internet, it’s easy to see images and other stuff as not proper property, since they’re not tangible, but they are.

To give an analogy, it’s like taking your neighbour’s couch, putting it in your house, and then when they come yell at you, your defense is “but I was just using it for fun, I wasn’t going to sell it on Craigslist!” Content creators have a RIGHT to have their property respected.

How would you feel if someone took parts of your book, put them in theirs copy-pasted, and then told you, “it was just for fun!” when you’d get rightfully upset?

Property is property, intellectual or not. Have some respect for the people that work hard to create it!

There are MILLIONS of free stock photos to choose from if you want to have fun and be 100% legal.

You may cry “fair use!”—  Nobody cares

Maybe you’re thinking of only putting the cover up on your site, nothing commercial. Maybe you’ve even thought about adding a disclaimer (“fair use”), to be 100% sure that you’re not liable for lawsuit. What if I told you that you’re still going to be held accountable?

Unfortunately, creatives don’t care if you don’t use their images commercially, just that you used them. Putting a disclaimer on will just have them sneer at you and be even more pissed off. Heck, one blogger even got sued because of it…and she’s not the only one. Copyright lawsuits are big, and they ask a lot of money from the one getting sued. It doesn’t matter if you had good intentions or not, unfortunately.

The worst thing you can do is get a random image off Google and say it’s in fair use. Not only are you not educating yourself for your book cover (why not?), but you’re also intentionally making yourself liable to a lawsuit. It doesn’t matter if you link back to the source, add credit, made no money from it etc. They can sue you for using their image. Taking it down immediately upon receiving a notice doesn’t even absolve you from liability, unfortunately.

A picture of Fry from Futurama captioned "shut up and give me all your money."
Their lawyers’ thoughts while they strip you of every penny you have.

What about Public Domain?

I’ve seen some people say that Google Images are public domain because they’re on the internet, and well, the internet is public, right? Unfortunately, most images you can get while searching are NOT Public Domain.

What is public domain?

Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired,[1] have been forfeited,[2] or are inapplicable. Examples include the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, most of the early silent films, the formulae of Newtonian physics, and powered flight.[1] The term is not normally applied to situations where the creator of a work retains residual rights, in which case use of the work is referred to as “under license” or “with permission.” – Wikipedia definition

So, if you want to use a classical painting as your cover, you’re in luck — no copyright law to rain on your parade. Likewise with very, very old works. Usually, something becomes public domain after a few decades. However, even if the original author is long dead, make sure there are no heirs that claim copyright law before using their work.

Safest field to play, but you also have to be creative to get a really unique cover out of it. I’ll probably make a post in the future on how to get unique book covers out of public domain paintings, so stay tuned!

An image displaying three book covers that use public domain artwork.
Examples of covers using public domain images

So, if not from Google, from where?

Now that I hopefully demolished your Google Image habits, it’s time to educate you on where you need to get your covers from.

There are a lot of stock sites out there, which offer images either free or at a small fee.

A stock site is a site on which photographers upload their photos for sale. Prices may vary from a few cents to hundreds of dollars. The big players will of course, charge more. It all depends on your budget and how much you want to spend to build a face for your book. Prices can also depend on image size, how many items you plan to sell, and so on and forth.

Generally, anything labelled “stock” is more or less safe to use as long as you seek out what its terms of use are.

Here are my recommendations:

  1. Free Images, former sxc.hu. Plenty of variety, and the quality varies from professional and polished to amateur. Make sure to check each photographer’s creative commons licences. In general, images are free here, to use both personally and commercially.
  2. iStock Photos & Getty Images. Even though these ones can get quite pricey, they are well worth it. High quality and entirely professional, huge variety.
  3. Yay Micro Stock. High variety, varied quality. Very, very cheap!
  4. Morgue File. Free, varied quality. You can find some gems if you look hard
  5. DeviantArt’s stock section. Varied degrees of quality, but make sure to check each user’s stock photo usage rules. One my favourites is MJRanum, which offers beautiful model stock for free. Doing god’s work, that man is.
  6. This list here, which features 12 sites from which you can pick up beautiful stock for free. Less organized and less variety, but high quality and unique.

There are also many, many others, these are just the ones I use on a regular basis :)

What if I want a painting as my cover?

  1. If you saw a piece of art you loved: Contact the original artist and see what they say. They may ask for a price, might offer to do something custom for you but similar, or might even be gracious enough to let you use it for free. NEVER ask for the image for free though, unless you want an immediate refusal.
  2. If you want something custom made: Scour the internet for artists whose style you like and who have accessible rates for you. Onwards, it’s all up to you and the artist to communicate!

Don’t just pick up any piece of art you found on Google before talking first with the original artist! Unless it’s public domain, you will get in trouble.

Don’t Google!

As I said earlier, no passing fancy for an image is worth your peace of mind and a lawsuit. Make sure to research copyright for each image you want to use, as well as each photographer’s terms of use.

Good luck, and good hunting!

Worst case scenario, you’ll just have to pay a professional to do it for you !

This post first appeared on M. Romano Book Covers and is crossposted by the author as part of our NaNoWriMo 2014 series. Follow her at Facebook, on her blog, or on Twitter!

For our own horror story on how the use of images can bite you in the butt, check our our piece, We Try It: Getting Sued.

7 thoughts on “Is It Okay to Use an Image from Google for My Book Cover?”

  1. This is also a good opportunity to support your local photographers. Purchase a photo from them (but make sure you are VERY clear about the intended use and make sure they’re not contractually obligated to sell exclusively through a certain site, etc.)

  2. Really helpful article!

    I would say, even when you purchase images, CHECK the license type. Just because you paid doesn’t mean you have full access. Most licenses, especially cheap ones, will only cover you for a limited number of reproductions. SO, if you’re printing a self-published book, you’d only be good for maybe 1000 copies.

    On the positive side, I’ve emailed many places to see where they stand on eBook covers and they’re far more liberal. Use of paid photos as eBook covers or in website designs is generally unlimited, but always ask!

    Now if only I could find better guidelines about copywritten/trademarked material. I’d like to mention real bands/songs or talk about certain video games in my work without being sued. :( Anyone have any tips there? Even if that tip is “consult a copyright lawyer” ?

    1. ummm…consult a copyright lawyer? Copyright law was written with heavy corporate input, so it’s really confusing and designed to screw over the “little people.”
      And even if it’s considered “fair” under the law, it’s still better to go through appropriate channels-artists can be very protective. My husband was at a masterclass* run by a composer and a participant had copied a single page in order to facilitate a page turn (totally fair use) and the composer flipped out at her on stage.

      *For the non-music school peeps, a masterclass is basically a lesson in front of an audience. The participant will prepare a piece and the instructor will tell them how to play it better.

      1. Yeah, that’s looking like the safest option. *trying to save all the monies*

        Your husband got yelled at for copying music for his personal use? That’s seems weird. Like Nintendo won’t sue me for my homemade Yoshi magnets. If I tried to sell them, maybe (lol all of etsy would fall), but if it’s just mine? That composer sounds like a jerk.

        1. It wasn’t my husband-he was just in the audience. And the composer does seem like a colossal jerk (disclaimer*: at least in this story, dunno about the rest of the time). Also, this was recent enough AND the music pricey enough that they could have spent time futzing with the layout in order to avoid said page turn.

          Also, just remind yourself that getting sued would cost you WAY more lawyer minutes than a consultation.

          *One never knows who’s reading what and I don’t want to get sued for defamation, even though I was as vague as humanly possible.

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