There can be several different reasons why you would want to edit someone else’s photo. You could want to use these photos as a design or maybe just edit someone else’s photos to decorate your place. No matter what it is, you need to make sure you’re able to do it first.
Can you legally edit someone else's photos? This question has many different levels to it, and it depends on the situation. In 95% of default cases, the answer is no. Photos, no matter how much they are edited, will almost always be protected by the original photo taker. It is recommended by photographers, business owners, and other relevant parties to explore other options instead of editing someone else’s photos.
This question can be a slippery slope and can easily confuse people on what they can and can’t do. Read on further to check out some of those other options below, along with the one instance people have been able to edit others’ photos. Again, because this is important, before you make a decision, make sure to read up on the risks and choices available to you.
Is it Legal to Edit Someone’s Photos?
If you find a picture on the Internet, and it’s not on a site that specifically gives you access via something called the “public domain,” you will need to obtain express permission from the creator to use the photo. This image is copyrighted even if you can’t find the original owner. It doesn’t need any kind of watermark or symbol, saying that it is a copyrighted work.
If you take this photo and use it as your own, even edited, it will generally be looked at as copyright infringement. You can’t take the image, add your favorite quote on it and put it on a T-Shirt or palette swap colors to create additional effects.
There have been more cases than you realize where people were sued for using someone else’s images. These trials are long and they are expensive. Even if you win, you still have to pay for lawyers and court fees until the process is finished.
If your reasoning behind this editing justifies that payment, then more power to you. But that's still a roll of the dice that can cause more headaches than the problems they solve.
I know what you're thinking next. What about transformative works?
What About Fair Use?
The only main way someone can edit someone else’s photo and get away with it is by using a doctrine called Fair Use. Fair Use is a legal doctrine that allows limited use of an image that’s copyrighted without needing permission from the owner.
There's a big problem though. The issue with this is that this doctrine isn’t exactly black and white. People have gotten away with using images based on minimal editing, and people have been found infringing on others even when they alter the image heavily, transforming it into another work.
This causes people to sometimes go down the risky route because they found one instance where it was found appropriate. Unfortunately, that's not how Fair Use works. Because every copyright infringement involves a different defendant, most of the power rests with the holder of the copyright and the judge.
There are many ways to try to establish Fair Use, but in this circumstance, it could happen if a photo is edited in a way that offers “transformative use.” I've used that word a couple times already. This means that the photo is edited so that the new edition changes the expression and meaning of the original.
According to Stanford, transformative use mostly falls under 2 main categories: (1) commentary and criticism, or (2) parody.
These loose terms make this relative to the eyes of whoever is the decision-maker and unfortunately make this entire ruling come down to a judgment call. Judges tend to side more with the original copyright owner, and even if Fair Use is eligible, it doesn’t stop you from getting sued in the first place.
Fair Use can sometimes be used as an argument, but it would be best most of the time to try to stay out of these types of situations. I think I'd rather have 100% of my own thing or licensed works than run up 6 figures in legal fees to have a chance of turning something into my own.
Also, just because you see someone else doing it or there is precedent set, doesn’t mean your situation is right as well. Most of the time, if you’re asking the question, “am I allowed to do this?” the answer is most likely a no.
What if I Attribute the Artist?
Even if you take another person’s image, edit it, and then mention them in the description or shout them out, copyright infringement is still in play here. Don’t think that you can just link to their portfolio or the original image, and you’re safe.
Copyright laws are in place to allow the artist or photographer the opportunity to decide where their images are published before they are. If you publish or use it, and then they find out afterward through some sort of attribution, you could already be in trouble.
Ask the Artist for Permission
One of the best ways to be able to edit photos is by asking the artist for permission. If you’re willing to give them a shout out, you might as well do the better option and just ask them if the work you are doing is okay with them. You never know if the owner could say yes.
Some of these photographers and artists do these things for hobbies or are at such an early step in their career that even just the thought of you enjoying their work could be enough for them to allow you to use it for whatever you’d like. This could also come down to the way you’re using it. They could be more willing if it’s used in a positive setting like the background of your website or a shirt design, than a negative way like a parody or meme they don’t enjoy.
Either way, it doesn’t hurt to ask, especially if you’re looking for other options if you don’t have their permission.
Use Public Domain Photos
Public domain photos are great. I use quite a few royalty-free stock photos across my portfolio of websites. You might not know this, but there are a lot of websites out there that offer high-quality images and photos for free. Most of the stock photo websites charge a monthly fee but their licensing is open to allow the public to access them at large and do as they wish with the photos.
When you hear stock photos you may think of some of the bad, 90's to 00's images that are still out there on stock photography sites. Not all of these sites are cheesy stock photos and clip art. Most of the sites are populated by artists that just want to get their images out on the web. Most of these sites allow all of the images on their site to be used for any purposes they want and usually don’t need any form of attribution.
If you go this route, be sure to read the terms of the site and understand the licensing restrictions. Not all websites allow royalty-free use, even though they are labeled as free and public. Make sure the photos are available for both personal and commercial use.
Can I Edit Photos for Personal Use?
Now, what if you want to edit someone else’s photo and you aren’t looking to do anything commercial with it? This comes down to how you personally feel about it. The original owner retains the rights no matter how private your use is but it's a gray area since there is no direct negative consequences of infringement to the copyright holder.
If you hired someone to take photos at your wedding and you want to edit out your nephew in the background picking his nose before you hang it on your wall, I don’t see any problem with that. In fact, most wedding photographers, even the self-absorbed ones, wouldn't even care. You've already paid them loads of money, it’s not being used in any business sense, and it’s not even leaving the confines of your house anyway.
If, however, you’re using it to put it on a T-shirt or pass out flyers, I would recommend being a little more cautious. Anything that leaves the house has a much higher chance of causing you a problem with the original owner.