As an Editor, This Is the Top Thing I See Writers Getting Wrong With Their Articles

Writers are opening themselves up to lawsuits by violating image policies

Jennifer Geer


Photo by Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash

When I joined the editing team for the large and very active Illumination Integrated Publications, I noticed a common theme among many articles. More than you would think have to be rejected or are delayed in being published for no other reason than a problem with images.

Every writer wants publications to accept their articles and publish them in a timely fashion. Writers also want their stories chosen by Medium for further distribution. But most importantly, no writer wants to deal with a lawsuit for using an image they don’t have the right to use.

As online writers, we quickly learn that much of the success of a story is tied to the headline, subtitle, and the image. Of course, writers want the perfect photo to attract readers to their articles. But you’ve got to think first about where your photo came from.

You can’t get out of a lawsuit by claiming ignorance of the law. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know better or if you didn’t make much money from your article, or even if your blog isn’t monetized. Those excuses won’t get you out of trouble.

Here are the top issues I see with images when I’m editing Illumination stories.

№1 image problem: No citations in the caption

I see this often, and sometimes it’s just an oversight. The writer has a fair use image, but they forgot to attribute it.

To avoid this problem, always cite your source with a link as soon as you upload your photo. Don’t skip this step for later. If you end up forgetting it, your article could be delayed or rejected. And if somehow the editor misses this and it does get published, you will not have any chance that Medium will choose your article for further distribution.

It’s all right here in the Medium Help Center on Distribution. You are disqualified from having your story chosen for further distribution when you violate the copyright images policy:

“Copyrighted images — Writers/pubs should use images they have the rights for and cite their sources. Resources like Nappy, Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash, and the Gender Spectrum Collection are great for sourcing Creative Commons-licensed images (please be sure to research and adhere to the license of the images you use). Original imagery is also great.”

№2 image problem: Attributions that tell the editor nothing

Images on Pinterest, Flickr, Google, or any other website may or may not be copyrighted. When you cite your source as “Google Image” or “Pinterest” for example, you aren’t giving an editor the information they need to publish your article. For example:

  • Who is the original photographer?
  • What is the images license?
  • Do you have permission to use the image?
  • What is the original source of the image?

№3 image problem: Questionable sources

You can’t just slap a citation and link to the caption of any image you find on Google or Pinterest or anywhere else and call it a day. Just because an image is online does not make it fair game to be used in your story or your blog. And providing attribution does not permit you to reuse it.

For example, online newspapers hold the copyrights to images they use. If you take an image from a news story, even if you cite and provide a link to the original image, you’re setting yourself up to get sued by whoever holds the image license.

Suing over image violations has become a business

There are big bucks to be had from image violation lawsuits.

Actress Lisa Rinna is fighting a lawsuit filed against her for posting images of herself on her Instagram page. Even though she used photos of herself that were taken in a public place, Backgrid, the agency that represents the paparazzi, is claiming Lisa doesn’t own the rights to the photos.

It’s not just celebrities finding themselves sued. Webcopyplus tells its story of how the company was sued for $4,000 for inadvertently using an illegal copy of a digital photo in which the license could have been purchased for $10.

In another example, blogger Roni Loren wrote about her troubles when she used a random Google image and was sued by the photographer who owned the photo. Although she immediately took the photo down, it didn’t get her out of trouble. She still had to deal with fees and lawyers and a whole lot of stress.

What images are safe to use?

You can always use your own photos that you have taken yourself, but you’ve still got to cite them, so your editor knows you have the rights. It’s as simple as adding the caption, “Image by author.”

Your second choice is using royalty-free images. On its Help page, Medium suggests the following sources for Creative Commons-licensed images:

Medium even has a built-in Unsplash library of photos available to you. Just click the plus, click the search icon, enter your keywords and choose your photo. This option is great because Medium automatically adds the proper photo credit with links to the photographer.

Another option is using Wikimedia Commons Images, but you’ve got to be careful with this and always check on the license as not every image on Wikimedia Commons is fair use. Some images are copyrighted, and you could be sued for using them.

Another choice is buying a subscription to licensed images such as Getty Images or Shutterstock.

Before you submit an article to Illumination or any other publication, read this post from Illumination’s Chief Editor, Dr Mehmet Yildiz.

And for more ideas on where to find fair use photos, check this out.

Nobody wants to get sued for thousands of dollars because they accidentally used a photo they didn’t have permission to use. Don’t open yourself to that kind of trouble, follow the image policies carefully before you upload that perfect photo to your story.



Jennifer Geer

Writer, blogger, mom, owner of pugs, wellness enthusiast, and true crime obsessed.