by Melinda VanLone

Are you an indie author about to create or commission a cover? If so, most likely you’ll be using images to design your latest best seller. Did you know that those images have copyrights? Even if you found them on the interwebs like litter on a street corner, they still have rights. It’s that fact that gets a lot of authors in trouble.

It’s never a good idea to pull an image directly off of a Google search because you can’t be sure where it’s coming from, who has the rights, whether they’ve released them, or whether they are still very much the property of the creator.

To keep yourself protected from potential legal action, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Discover images at reputable websites

If you’re designing the cover yourself, use reputable stock photography sites and purchase the right to use the image. In a future blog post I’ll go over the rights each site gives, and the pros and cons of each, but in the meantime here’s a few reputable sites I recommend:

Pay attention to what rights you actually purchased 

Some sites sell you the right to use an image for personal reasons at one price, but charge a different price for commercial use. (Hint…you need commercial rights.)

Also take note of whether you’re allowed to manipulate the image in any way. Most stock sites do grant you the right to tinker to your heart’s desire, but a few don’t. Be sure you adhere to whatever rules they set out for you. Some sites give you unlimited eBook reproduction but limit the number of print copies you can produce before requiring an “extended license.”

When you purchase the image, I highly recommend saving a PDF of the license and storing it for future reference with the image/cover. 

Pass on by any image marked “for editorial use only.” That means the image can’t be used for personal or commercial purposes, which means you can’t use it on a book cover. Those images are only used for magazine or news articles, and should never be manipulated (Photoshopped together with other images or retouched).

The buck stops with you

If you’re hiring a designer to craft your cover for you, it’s still ultimately your responsibility to make sure they’ve obtained the rights to the images they use to craft your cover, in the same way that if you hire an assassin you’re still responsible for the murder they commit on your behalf. 

Most professional designers are well aware of the basic rights/rules, but some aren’t. Don’t be afraid to ask them where they purchased the image, and ask for a copy of the image license.

If they produced the image themselves (if, for instance, they are also a photographer and they used their own photography), then ask them to convey the rights to you in writing. There are boilerplate contracts you can use to convey the basic terms, just so there are no misunderstandings in the future.

Sometimes it seems silly to go through the motions of paperwork but trust me, should a lawsuit arise, you’ll be glad you did it.

“Free” isn’t worth it.

I avoid “free” sites because: 

1. The images are not great quality and they are overused. It’s fine for a blog post or newsletter, not so fine for a book cover; and 2. The license is flawed.

Most free sites use a type of “Creative Commons” license which means yes you can use it for commercial use, but it does not guarantee that whoever posted the image to the site actually had the right to distribute the image, nor that they didn’t violate privacy laws or property laws to obtain the image.

In other words, they may have infringed on someone else’s rights…which makes you an accomplice if you use it. They also don’t police the content at all, leaving you vulnerable.

The stock sites I’ve mentioned above do a certain amount of vetting of the photographers who post their images for use. There are statements and contracts which establish that they’ve obtained the model’s permission, that they own the photo, etc. Which in turn gives you a certain level of protection you just don’t get for free. 

In my next post, I’ll go more in depth regarding the stock photography websites I’ve recommended and their painful-to-read rights. If you’ve been using a site that didn’t make my list, please leave a note in the comments and I’ll investigate it for you. 

Please note…I’m not a lawyer. I’m a graphic designer and an author. I have, however, spent years in the publishing industry handling images and dealing with the legal issues associated with using them, so I do have tips and advice that I hope helps you in your book covering quest. That said, when in doubt, please consult an actual lawyer or simply don’t use the image.

Do you struggle with finding images? Have you ever had legal issues with photos? Melinda is ready for your questions down in the comments!

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About Melinda

Melinda VanLone writes urban fantasy, freelances as a graphic designer, and dabbles in photography. She currently lives in Florida with her husband and furbabies.

When she’s not playing with her imaginary friends, you can find Melinda playing World of Warcraft, wandering aimlessly through the streets taking photos, or hovered over coffee in Starbucks.

Her elementary fantasy series, House of Xannon, begins with Stronger Than Magic. And for more information on covers, visit