Are You Legal?

Hello SErs. Harmony here 🙂 Today, I’d like to take a look at designing a book cover for your latest master piece while ensuring you don’t break one of the many copyright rules.

Whether you make the cover yourself or hire a designer, a good chance exists that you’ll use a stock image for it.

Even if you paid the image designer or photo site, it doesn’t guarantee that you’re safe.

Many authors and designers don’t understand all of the nuances.

Below, I list the different types of license for stock photos:


Standard License – For example, a Shutterstock Standard License allows you to use images an unlimited number of times in digital applications, which includes eBooks, websites, online ads, software, mobile applications, and online ads.

What about printed designs, such as hardcover or softcover print books?

This is why the fine print for any stock photo you use for your book cover is imperative. For Shutterstock, a standard license allows your use for up to 500,000 times in print runs.

Extended License – If there are restrictions on an image, you have to pay for an extended or enhanced license. This usually means additional fees for digital usage, print usage, or both in order to use it.  An Enhanced License offers more freedom in terms of image usage. An EL doesn’t have limits on print runs or out-of-home advertising.

Editorial Use Only – Some images are labeled with “Editorial Use Only.” You aren’t allowed to use “editorial use only images” as they often contain newsworthy events, celebrities, or recognisable locations.

Right to “Alter” – Some stock photos come with a use license but without permission to alter. You will want to check that your license includes the right to “alter.” That’s critical because at a minimum you will be adding text to your book cover, and that is considered an alteration.


I, for one, would hate to receive a ‘cease and desist’ notice for any of those infringements.

So, in the end, depending on what stock photo site you use or your designer uses, make sure you that understand what type of license you have and any restriction it may have as well.

And Now: A WARNING …

You can’t fully trust stock photo sites.

Sorry about that.

Also, no matter where your images come from, you are the SOLE  person legally responsible for your usage of them.

Why did I just say all of that? …

Well, not all stock photo sites examine every image to make sure it doesn’t contain something that is copyrighted outside of the image’s owner/designer’s copyright or usage licence. … Bit of a mouthful, that.

What do I mean when I talk about something else within the stock image? Let me give you an example …Storm MC Collection Books 1 - 4 (Motorcycle Club Romance) by [Levine, Nina]

While this image may be fine [I don’t know the authors or publishers or designers for this volume], you could get into trouble because of the tattoo the model wears. … I know, right? And then there’s the font … do you have a license to use your font commercially? Can you alter it? Do you have a sales limit on it?

All good things to be aware of.

The below book cover, provided all your licenses are adequate, is safer, as none of the models wears tattoos, etc [again, I don’t know the author, publisher, or designer for this book cover].Romance Down Under: Small Town Romance Starter Set by [Alvarez, Tracey]

Another area that could get you into trouble is logos. Think designer clothing labels shown in your image … they might not like their brand being shown in, say, a crime novel where the main antagonist is a sexual predator. Think Disney (and a whole gamut of others) … avoid any images that contain any of these at all costs. It’s just not worth it.


Happily, there is some protection out there …

Below, I list some sites that do examine every image before approving it on their site. (None of these are affiliates, and I receive no gain [financial or otherwise] for mentioning them here.)

  • Shutterstock
  • DepositPhotos
  • Dreamstime
  • Adobe Stock
  • … And others …

The reason these sites are safer is because they are large companies who employ moderators to check each and every image before it goes live.

Sites that sell stock photos are far stricter with their content than sites that just list free images, such as Pixabay or Pexels. Which is a shame, because I adore Pixabay.

Free stock photo sites aren’t making money from their images, so if they are caught with an image that infringes on copyright, they need to remove the photo, but they (hopefully) won’t face a financial penalty.

They aren’t using the image for commercial use. But you are.

The biggest issue with these sites is when people use photos with people, aka “figurative” stocks. The subject of a photo might not care about a picture of them being on a free stock photo site, but they might not appreciate appearing on the cover of your edgy BDSM novel.

It’s important that you always get your figurative images from a reputable site. Check the site’s policy on checking all their images for legality before using an image.


Okay, sorry for the uber-long article. I hope you’ve found it useful. What stock image sites do you use? What steps do they take to guarantee their images? Do you know of other safe sites that I haven’t mentioned? Have any of you ever gotten into trouble from your book cover(s)?

Once, via a public Tweet on Twitter, someone tried to call me out by saying they knew for a fact that the owner of an image on one of my books (Finding Katie) had it copyrighted. Happily, I had contacted the designer on Deviant Art, who also happened to be the model, and obtained her permission to use the image mentioned. I Tweeted that person back and confirmed I had permissions, but it could have gotten nasty real quick.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below …

Harmony Kent

© 2019, Harmony Kent – All Rights Reserved

40 thoughts on “Are You Legal?

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. Pingback: Are You Legal? | Story Empire – Renee Writes

  3. An excellent post, Harmony. Thanks! I hired a book design company (BDT Covers) for the cover of my upcoming poetry collection and I purchased one image (state of Maine) from iStock/GettyImages for a limited amount of printed copies (up to 500,000). I believe these are both reputable companies and should be covered. Saving this post and sharing as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Harmony, this is an excellent post on such an important topic. I am uber-cautious when it comes to stock photography. I will use Pixabay and Pexels for photos on my blog, but I also use, a pay site. When it comes time for anything I intend to use in print, I go to Bigstock. On my own blog site, I will also link photos I’ve purchased from Bigstock back to their site (something you will find in their fine print for usage).

    As writers, we are so studious about our own copyrights and not wanting our work to appear without our permission. The same goes for photographers, who should be shown the same respect.

    You really looked deeply into aspects of covers most of us take for granted. Really exceptional and informative post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very important topic, Harmony. It’s almost impossible to keep up with all the copyright laws. I prefer to have my covers made by reputable professional designers who guarantee their work. I know that’s not a 100% safe, but it’s better than if I attempted it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I pay for images on so just assumed, since they’re royalty free, that I was safe. But I never thought about all of the things you listed. Even when you try to stay legal, it’s a little tricky. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I use Unsplash specifically because of their license which states:

    “All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible.
    More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. This license does not include the right to compile photos from Unsplash to replicate a similar or competing service.”

    I felt it was a good place to start. I do use their handy feature to copy and paste credit. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Unsplash sounds great, Jo. Do they state anywhere whether or not they vet all their images to protect you, the end user? Thanks for sharing! 🙂


      • “isclaimer. There is no reasonable way for us to monitor all of the User Content that gets uploaded to or posted on the Service, and we are under no obligation to you or the other users to monitor, edit, or control the User Content that you and other users upload or post to the Service. This means that we are not responsible for any User Content on the Service and you agree not to make any claims against us on account of User Content. That said, we may at any time remove, edit, screen, or block any User Content from the Service (without notifying you first) for any reason, including if we think the User Content violates these Terms or is otherwise objectionable. When you use the Service, you will be exposed to the User Content of other users, some of which may be offensive, inaccurate, or indecent. We may investigate claims alleging that User Content violates these Terms and, in those cases, we alone will decide what actions to take (if any) regarding the User Content in question.”

        I am not an attorney, but looks like they do “monitor”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately, this disclaimer tells me they don’t monitor every upload. Furthermore, they absolve themselves of any liability, so I would take care when using an image from Unsplash. Sorry, Jo.


  8. I always worry about this, because my artist uses stock images from time to time. Then there is the concept of “commercial” use. He used it to make something to sell me. What am I doing with it? I doubt any license he has carries through to my usage, but could be wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My understanding is that you are the purchaser and user of the licence rather than your artist, as you have commissioned he or she to work for you. I agree, though, this is a hazy area as the artist pays for and downloads the actual image(s). I haven’t come across anyone getting into trouble over this one yet. Thanks, Craig 🙂


  9. It’s crazy. I’m all for protecting the model, the artist, and a company with a trademarked logo, but if those entities have an issue, they can contact the author or publisher. You shouldn’t have random people making you miserable over things that don’t concern them. Sounds like harassment to me, not a good deed done.

    This was a wonderful article. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Living in such a highly branded society just makes things more and more difficult for finding images that are ‘clean’. Thanks, Roberta 🙂


  10. You have people who seem to leap at any chance to yell ‘thief’ too. One of my one-shot book covers is an homage to a video game image. The cover artist and I did our research to make sure we could do it. Biggest thing is I had to publicly state what it was and not make a carbon copy. I still get a resin yelling at me on Twitter every few months until I explain and show various sites. So, one should be careful at least to avoid the headache.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I couldn’t agree more, Charles. On my cover for Finding Katie, I liaised with the artist (who is also the adult model) on using her image. I had her permission, and still someone on Twitter tried calling me out.


      • One person noticed a part of a cover was similar to a Magic: The Gathering card. I had no idea if the artist used it for inspiration or not. Both were based around dragonflies, but it caused a mess until we managed to come to an understanding. For many people, similar is exactly like carbon copying.

        Liked by 1 person

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