In Layman's Terms: Can you really use that photo?

Todd Seifert


I’ve written about the important issue of photo copyrights before and have dedicated a small portion of a multimedia worship tools workshop to the subject as well. But every now and then something comes up that I think requires me to reiterate some key points.

And let’s be honest, this is a complicated subject.

Recently, a church reached out to the conference office to seek some guidance on an issue. The church had received a notice from what amounts to a copyright collection agency named The letter demanded payment in excess of $700.

It should be noted that this is a legitimate company doing legitimate work. Newsgathering costs money, and employees like to be paid in newsrooms as much as they like to be paid in churches. Many print and online news outlets have as part of their revenue streams reprints or usage rights for their photos.

This company contacted this church because the faith community had used a photo of Catholic Pope Francis to illustrate a newsletter item featuring a member of its congregation. The member had been interviewed for a story by a news service associated with the Vatican, so a photo showing the pope makes sense. What’s the harm, right?

Well, copyright law can be complicated, particularly when you’re dealing with foreign countries’ laws. Had the story contained a photo, and had that photo simply been used by the church as a means to link to the news service’s story, the congregation probably would have been fine to use the image under what is widely considered to be “fair use.” The church, in that scenario, would have been pointing people to a story, in effect providing free advertising to the news agency.

In this case, it doesn’t appear that the story and photo were linked in any way other than the pope being the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not 100% sure how the church came to possess this photo, and I want to be totally clear that I don’t blame the church. My guess is this is a more common occurrence than we want to admit. Otherwise, there would be no need for a company like to begin with.

I want to address today the most common scenario that I think leads to these kinds of concerns. It involves going to Google images and how to at least make a good-faith effort to avoid photos from organizations that highly value their copyrighted materials.

So here’s my scenario for today: A pastor or administrative assistant or volunteer in a local church is looking for a photo either to illustrate a sermon topic or for a bulletin cover or for a newsletter item. He or she goes to and does a search for an image that matches the desired theme.

The photo is selected and used, and somehow the copyright holder — or a third party they contract with, such as — finds out about it. The copyright holder has every right to collect the normal fee for the rights for use.

How can you make every effort possible to protect yourself? It starts with the search.

From, you search for the image. As a quick example, we’ll search for images tied to my alma mater, the Kansas Jayhawks. When I search for images with those keywords, this is the results page.
But I haven’t made a good-faith effort yet to see that I can use any of these images. So next I click on “Tools” in the top menu bar. And then click on “Usage Rights.” Then click on “Labeled for Reuse with Modification.” I prefer this classification because as soon as you manipulate the size by a single pixel, you have modified the image. And I tend not to use the “Labeled for Noncommercial Reuse with Modification” because the definition of commercial differs somewhat from country to country.

The screen will redraw with the images that fit this search parameter.

Then, once I select the image I want to use — assuming there is still one available that I want to use — I check its source. If it’s from an international news source, I consider it unusable. If it’s from a domestic news organization, then you have to consider for what the image will be used. If it’s to provide a link to the story that accompanies the photo, you should be safe. If it’s for a bulletin cover, you’re probably not covered.
Any photo graphic that comes from a third-party vendor such as iStock or Getty Images or Shutterstock should be discounted. After all, selling images is their business.
So, what can you use? Well, you can use anything, for free, provided by the Great Plains Conference from our Flickr albums at In particular, I want to steer you toward an album we have titled “Scenes from the Great Plains Conference.” This album contains photos from the beautiful territory our communications team covers in Kansas and Nebraska. We’ll work at adding some sacred kinds of images to that gallery throughout 2020, things like communion, baptism, Advent and other images that will help local churches find images that may be helpful.
I know this seems like one more hassle for a local church. But if you use an image taken by a commercial entity, you do have to pay for it. In the case of the church I mentioned earlier, I was able to find the Getty Images page with that photo and found that it sold for a price of $175 for a small image, $375 for a medium image and the largest size was $499.

You may note that the price for the largest is still $200 less than what the third-party company wanted to charge. I recommended the church call Getty Images directly and offer to pay the smallest amount first and then to try to negotiate to avoid the heftier fee.

Bottom line: These companies can and will take a church to court. They are all about doing what they were hired to do, to protect copyright images. They couldn’t care less if you’re a church or an advertising agency.

So do what you can to protect yourself and your church by at least making a good-faith effort when you choose images for use in the life of the church.

Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 785-414-4224, or via email at Listen to his "In Layman's Terms" podcast. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or The United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.