the inadvertent pirate

by Tess Gerritsen

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post over on my own site about e-book piracy, and how victimized I felt, as an author, about my books being pirated.  After I wrote the post, I thought I’d add an appropriate graphic to accompany the entry, so I went searching for a pirate image.  I did a search on Google Images and found 17,700,000 entries.  

Now, I don’t think of myself as the type of person prone to be a pirate.  My daughter-in-law and my younger son both make their livings as professional photographers, so I’m well aware of the issue of photographers’ rights.  Photographers want copyright control over their images just as much as we writers want control over our creations.  

So as I looked at all those pirate images on Google, I automatically shied away from any and all photographs, because I knew they were probably under license.  I shied away from anything with a live model or anything that looked like a hand-drawn illustration.  I shied away from anything that had a trademark or an obvious business logo.  I finally settled on the most generic black-and-white skull and crossbones I could find.  It looked like your standard pirate flag symbol, something that might actually have flown on a flag two hundred years ago.  How could something so generic be under license?

The blog post went up, and two weeks went by.

Then I received an email from a helpful soul, pointing out how ironic it was that I’d chosen a licensed image to illustrate my blog post about piracy.  Take a careful look at that image, he advised me.  There was a watermark there, almost hidden in the background.  Yep, my generic skull-and-crossbones flag was a licensed image.

I’d completely missed it.  I’d pirated an image for my post about piracy.

Of course I took it right down.  And it got me to thinking — how often does this happen?  How often do we unknowingly pull off licensed images from the internet, thereby violating the rights of artists or photographers?

I asked the person who’d written me how one can tell if something’s licensed or not, and he passed the question along to a friend of his who works in the graphic arts business.  And the response was: all original creative works are copyrighted by default.  The problem with Google images is that there’s no way of knowing if the image is indeed in the public domain.  So to be safe, none of us should be using anything off Google images.

So where can we find free images?  

He suggested a site: morgue file, a public image archive.

He also suggested that one could head over to Wikipedia to look for public domain image sites.

Finally, he added that “Many US government produced images are Public Domain, except for “agency logos” as we paid for them. NASA, EPA, etc… image can be be freely used in many cases.Just see the term of image use on most agency pages. Some require crediting the agency or photographer or not commercial use.”

It’s a valuable tip for anyone who blogs.  If we hate being pirated as writers, then we should understand that it’s just as much a sin to be pirating off artists and photographers. 

Just my tip for the day.

(I’ll be traveling today so won’t be able to personally respond to any comments.)

29 thoughts on “the inadvertent pirate

  1. JD Rhoades

    Now wait just a doggone minute here. The SKULL AND CROSSBONES is copyrighted? By who? Blackbeard?

    Just because someone slaps a watermark on something doesn’t mean they own it. I’m reminded of the ‘net ninnies I’ve dealt with on USENET who bluster that they’re going to sue becuase I "violated their copyright" by quoting them.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Thanks for this post, Tess, and especially the links. I don’t post images in my blogs here unless they’re photos that someone has given me, not just because I am too lame to have mastered Squarespace, but because I’m afraid to violate copyright.

    This really helps. Except now I have no excuse not to figure out the photo function of Squarespace.

  3. Robert Gregory Browne

    Stealing photos on the Internet is so pervasive that it’s almost hard to blame you for the gaff, especially considering the image you used. But the irony is noted. 🙂

    Thanks SO MUCH for the link to the free photo sites. I also use a pay site called

    They’ve got some amazing images that are relatively inexpensive for commercial work.

  4. JD Rhoades

    Michael, I followed the link to the image Tess mentioned. I’ve seen that rendition of the skull & crossbones a million times. I’m sorry, unless someone (preferably the artist himself) can make a more convincing argument as to how that particular iconic and generic image constitutes "an original work of authorship" as defined in the law, I ain’t buying any claim of piracy. Otherwise, everyone who put a S & B on a poison bottle is engaging in copyright infringement.

  5. JD Rhoades

    The exact same image appears here. as "free clip art," and here as an illustration of the flag flown by Calico Jack Rackham.’ So until Calico Jack sends a Cease and Desist letter, I think you’re pretty safe.

    I think if someone tried to bring a claim of copyright infringement for that image, they’d get laughed out of court.

  6. JMH

    I’ve often wondered about the propriety of embedding a YouTube video on a private website. For example, I have a few Beatles videos embedded in my site. So far Paul hasn’t sent me an email complaining, but I suppose that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legal.

  7. JD Rhoades

    Interesting question, JMH. YouTube obviously intends for the videos to be embedded, since they provide the code, and you could make an argument that anyone who uploads their own videos understands this, and means for their vid to be disseminated. But an old Beatles video from a TV show? The show probably still owns it, but what if the show and the company that produced it are defunct?

    And here’s the one that still puzzles me…what about not embedding the You Tube video, but linking to it instead? Does pointing to someplace on the net and going "look at this!" constitute infringement?

  8. Alafair Burke

    Similarly, JD, if Tess includes an image on a blog by reference to the URL where the copyright owner posted it, isn’t she really crediting the artist and saying, "Hey, look at this image, which happens to work well with the text I just wrote?"

    I did a home-made low-budget trailer set to 1 minute of a Lady Gaga song. Fortunately, You Tube has an arrangment with copyright owners that lets them include the copyrighted material in exchange for placing ads on the page with your video. Win, win for all.

  9. Brett Battes

    JD and JMH…I believe some artist actually request that the embedded link be removed on certain youtube videos, so the artist does have some control there.

    Thanks for the links, Tess! I always stress over photos, and, therefore, seldom ever use them.

  10. pari noskin taichert

    This post and the ensuing comments so far demonstrate just what a challenge copyright is becoming in our "brave new electronic world."

    I know too many graphic designers and photographers to easily grab other people’s work w/o at least trying to get permission to use it. I have had photogs tell me I could use their image for hundreds of dollars — and you can bet I don’t do it (and don’t use their images either)– but the professional courtesy is something I try to practice.

    It’s the same with other people’s blogs and my own. I make every effort to credit folks for their work either through a link or direct citation. And when people use mine, I hope they extend me the same courtesy (they usually do).

  11. toni mcgee causey

    I’ve been trying to either give direct photo credit (beneath the photo) or link back to the photographer’s site for photo credit, where possible. For any photo where there’s a signature on the photo or a watermark, I’ll look at their site to see if they charge a fee or in any other way have indicated that they don’t want their photos re-posted. (For example, have they disabled the right-click feature of copying a photo? That small gesture tells me they don’t want it disseminated. Have they loaded their photo on a site which prevents downloading?)

    If I find a photo on someone’s site that just says, "wow, look, this is cool," and it’s not their photo, I don’t use it. (Lately–I hadn’t always been this diligent.)

    For photos where no effort to put a name or watermark, I assume the photographer did not care if it was disseminated. That isn’t always correct, of course, but the photographer has options when they upload their photos to the web, so I think some effort on their part to claim their photo is in order.

    Is all of that legal? I don’t know. I think it’s moral, in the sense that I’m trying to give the photographer credit. In the age of the internet, this is a very difficult conundrum because we’d like credit when our words are quoted. I know I’ve had a couple of times when someone has taken my entire blog posts as their own (and put their own name on it) and I was astounded, and I asked them to take it down. There have been a few times when someone would copy an entire blog post somewhere and leave my name on it, but no link back to the originating site, and I’ll ask them to please at least link it. Plus, I’m a photographer–I occasionally post photos of my own… but I’ve been lazy about putting watermarks on them. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone posted them somewhere else… but then, I never planned to make any money off of them.

    Does the question come down to the intention of the photographer? If their intention is to profit or if their intention is just to share with the internet? Given that no one’s forcing them to upload their photo in the first place–that original act of uploading carries with it some sort of intention. Right? Or is that completely wrong?

  12. Jake Nantz

    I’m kind of on the fence about this, because for a lesser known writer (or artist), it can sort of be seen as extra advertising. Then again, it isn’t FREE advertising, because you’re losing money by not making that sale. I can certainly see it being a much bigger issue for a NYT Bestseller than a starving artist or a lower-end midlister. Good topic to keep in the discussion, I’m glad you keep us conscious of it!

  13. John Dishon

    "The show probably still owns it, but what if the show and the company that produced it are defunct?"

    So if a book is out of print, does that make it fair game?

  14. JD Rhoades

    John, a more apt analogy would be if the book was out of print, the publisher was long out of business, leaving no legal successor to its assets and liabilities , and the author was dead, leaving no estate. Highly unlikely, so, like most "book piracy is like music/movie/video piracy" analogies, it’s not really all that useful.

    Even leaving that aside, I was asking a question, not making an argument.

  15. Stephen D. Rogers


    Great post. I once needed a photograph of Kate’s Mystery Books and searched until I found a suitable one at flickr. I then joined flickr so I could contact the photographer, who gladly gave me permission to use the image in a newsletter. So all’s well that ends well, but the hoops and the time spend jumping through them just reinforced my desire to create my own images.


  16. Zoë Sharp

    Very interesting post, and as a professional photographer myself, I can see both viewpoints.

    Back when I was shooting colour transparency film, I had direct control over the original images, but I still found them turning up in odd places sometimes because a magazine I’d shot them for had passed them on to another publication in the same group. It happens. If I was paid in the first place for the shot, I wasn’t bothered.

    Now – with digital – I freely accept that my pictures can – and do – turn up anywhere. If I put large, hi-res images out there on the web, people will download them. If they’re tiny thumbnails, they probably won’t. If I was really bothered about copyright infringement of my images, I’d include a watermark like iStockphoto do. Since I’m not, I don’t.

    This, I suppose, is a similar argument to having some kind of security software on eBooks, to prevent them being illegally copied by anyone other than the person who properly bought and paid for them.

  17. PK the Bookeemonster

    I think the problem of piracy with ebooks is a different animal than the images on the internet, though I take your meaning. I certainly may be ignorant in this area but my experience with my Kindle is that I cannot pass it along to anyone else. I don’t know about other ebook readers. Where are these pirated books being obtained? How and why? Is it really happening or is it only conjecture right now? I do know of free offerings by publishers on occasion but that is also a different issue.

  18. anna

    Tess, I started a new job 3 weeks ago and one of my professional colleagues bragged about downloading pirated files. Many $$$ thousands. Another professional colleague asked if she was scared of getting caught and suffering criminal consequences. I thought that (getting caught) should not be the number one compelling reason for not doing something WRONG! And I wondered how my professional life would go if I continued to work with people of such different values than mine. I quit and will start my new job next week.

    It is not surprising that intellectual property law is the fastest growing and considered sexiest specialties within law these days.

    I purchase my Tess Gerritsen (and other authors’) books. And you signed one last year! Thank you!

  19. Allison Brennan

    This is why I rarely post pictures on my blogs. Some are fine–like you can promote a television show you like and use their publicity image, etc. It’s often HOW you use the image as to whether you CAN use it at all. Public figures (actresses, etc) and generally ok to use. Music is another issue, which is why for my book trailer I bought the rights to royalty-free music. There are a lot of free image sites (my daughter does book trailers for her favorite books for fun and uses Deviant Art, which the terms of use are clear with each picture.) Thanks for the link, that’s now in my bookmarks!

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