by Olivia M. Hammerman, Collaborative Designer

Image courtesy of Unsplash

For many self-publishing authors, the book cover design process can be both exhilarating and intimidating. Copyright and intellectual law often fall into the latter category, but when it comes to your book’s cover, knowing a few basics can move the conversation with your designer miles ahead. Full disclosure, I’m not a lawyer, but as a graphic designer specializing in books, I encounter authors with the same dilemmas and questions around images for books often.

“I found this picture in an internet search. Can we put it on the cover?” 

I love Google Image search. It gives me an easy method of researching all kinds of visuals based on the ideas an author has given me for their cover. In some cases, it can even lead me to royalty-free or public domain images I can then use for an author’s cover free of charge. However, one of the central concepts to understand when doing this kind of image research is personal versus commercial use. If you’re using an image you found on the internet for a project you don’t intend to charge others money for (a one-time birthday card, your at-home mood board, a mobile phone wallpaper, etc.), you’re pretty much in the clear. What changes the equation entirely is if you intend to charge money for whatever you’re creating. Selling a book that uses images that the publisher/author doesn’t have the proper permissions for is a major legal liability that can lead to trouble with the creator of the image and any people depicted in it.

A book that an author intends to sell for money is considered a commercial product. (If you’re creating a book you don’t intend to sell for money, that’s a different matter.) In that case, you must have a commercial license and model releases for any people depicted for any image you intend to use on the cover or interior of your book. This can be as simple as getting an email from your uncle who took the photo saying, “Sure, use it for your book,” or as complex as having to track down the photographer or artist who created the image and any people depicted. That’s right, in addition to the image creator, you need to have written permission from each recognizable individual in the photo or image, or acquire the photo from a source that’s taken care of this (places like Getty, Shutterstock, Alamy, etc.).

“But I saw this image all over the news and online articles. Doesn’t that mean anyone can use it?” OR “Aha! But my friend took this photo at [a large event] and they’ve given me permission! We’re set, right?”

For photos taken by the press (usually denoted with the photographer’s name plus Associated Press, Getty, Reuters, etc.), the copyright holder (often the news organization) will mark the photo as editorial use only. This means you can’t use the image for commercial products. To avoid copyright infringement on a commercial product (makeup ad, book cover, album cover, etc.), you have to have every individual in the photo sign a model release, which gives the copyright holder permission to make money off that individual’s depiction. Depending on the event, it can be impossible to get each person’s written permission, so no one is allowed to make money off that photograph. News stations and online sources can use the photos under the “share alike” clause of the license since the photographer is doing a form of reporting.

Often, you can reach out to the copyright holder about specific photos and see if they’re willing to provide a creative license. But, as anyone who’s tried to get permission to use a song lyric in a book can tell you, this can be a long, frustrating, expensive process that may or may not end in success. Many of the big publishers have entire teams whose sole job is to research and gather image permissions for authors and designers.

As this you might have gathered, finding book cover images can be a complex task. Good book designers understand these concepts so their clients don’t have to and will have an arsenal of image sites they can use to find something that can work beautifully for your cover. But the short answer is, “No, we can’t use the picture you found on Google.”


Olivia M. Hammerman is an award-winning book designer and prepress expert whose childhood dream was to become a “bookmaker.” You can learn more about Olivia and see samples of her work here.