Guidelines on Using Photos in Your Self Published Book

Photos in a self-published book

Photographs and images in your book can help you tell your story and add interest, clarity and excitement to your book. A powerful image on the cover of your book, can do a lot to help sell your book.

However, the laws and regulations for when you can and can’t use a photograph in your book can be confusing and, if you aren’t careful, can get you in trouble.   Here are some simple guidelines to help end the confusion and keep you out of trouble.


As a rule, if you didn’t take the picture yourself, you have to have written permission from the copyright holder to use the image in your book. The two exceptions to this are:

  • Public Domain:   Under United States copyright law, all images published before January 1, 1923 in the United States are now in the public domain.    Just because something is posted on the World Wide Web does NOT mean it is under public domain.  In fact, most images on the World Wide Web are copyright protected and cannot be used without permission.
  • Fair use:  Fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.   You can read more about Fair Use here:   Please keep in mind that if you intend to profit from the sale of your book, the images you use in your book will probably NOT be covered by Fair Use.

Getting Permission

If you have a specific image you want to use, you will need to write a letter or send an email to the person who holds the copyright of the image and ask permission to use the image.  In some cases, the copyright owner of the image will allow you to use the image for free, but in many cases they may request you pay a fee for the right to use it.

There are a number of stock photo sites that will sell you images and the right to use the image in your book for a nominal fee.  My favorite image sites are:

This is a FREE stock photo site with over 350,000 images:

Wikepedia offers a list of image resources for public domain images:

Wikepedia is a good spot to search for images as the copyright restrictions on images are clearly labeled and many have been released into the public domain or are available for restricted use.

Images of People

If you took a picture of a group of individuals you may or may not need to get their permission to use the image in your book.

If you are using the image for editorial purposes, it’s usually okay to use them without permission.

If you are using photos with people in them for advertising, you need their permission.  People have the right to profit from their photograph or likeness and this right continues after death and is given to their heirs

Usually, using an image on the cover of your book would be considered an image for advertising purposes (since your cover is used to promote and sell your book) and using an image inside your book would be considered for editorial purposes.  For example, If you have pictures inside your book showing people white water rafting down a river, you will probably not need their permission. If you put that same picture on the cover of your book, however, you should get their permission.

Logos and Brand Names

Be wary of using logos, symbols, brand names, company names, and trademarks in an image.  Even using very old images of a brand name or trademark still in use, can get you in trouble.

Please note that I am not a lawyer and I am not engaged in rendering legal services.  When working with legal issues, or if you have any questions on using a photo in your book, you should always seek experienced, professional counsel.

16 thoughts on “Guidelines on Using Photos in Your Self Published Book

  1. Marilyn Stringer

    I am putting together a self-published book of blues performer photos that I have taken over the years. I am including one photo and bio information on each performer, with info about how to reach them, etc. I have been told both that I don’t need their permission to use my photo and that I do need permission to use my photo of them. I can’t find a definitive answer on this this. HELP!!

    1. Andy Baldwin Post author

      I am not an attorney, but my understanding is that you would need permission to use their pictures. Celebrities have the right to exploit the value of their likeness as they see fit, so the unauthorized use of a celebrity’s image violates his or her right of publicity.

  2. Writer

    Hi, I was wondering about using a celebrity’s image on the cover of my book, if I bought an image of them from shutterstock would I still need their permission?

    1. Andy Baldwin Post author

      If you bought a “creative image” from shutterstock you would be able to use it for your book. You would not be able to use an “editorial image” on your for-profit book. A “creative image” can be used for anything. An “editorial image” can only be used in a news story but not in a book you intend to sell for money.

  3. Colin

    Can someone publish a old photo where you and him and a nader person was on the photo in his book without your permission.

  4. Raven

    What if you can’t find who photo belongs to but state in copyright you do not know who the photo belongs to? And what if its edited so its not the exact photo? Like cropping or darken and adding art

    1. Andy Baldwin Post author

      You need to have permission to use a photo taken after 1923 (pre 1923 the photo should be in the public domain). If you don’t permission, then you shouldn’t use it. If you own the photo, or have permission to use, you can modify the photo, otherwise you can’t use the photo.

  5. Tim Trott

    I’m working on a bioographcal ebook of 60’s television star I personally knew. The family has photos that I want to use to illustrate the book. What do I need to need to do to show that I have their permission to use photos they have provided to me?

  6. Mark Jensen

    I have purchased many original photos on ebay of unknown persons, known people but not celebrity status and celebrities. Am I able to make a for profit book using these photos and of the three types do i need permission?

  7. karith gingrow

    Wanting to use a photo of people shopping in a market atmosphere to add to my illustration for a children’s book. I live near Philadelphia and was going to use a photo I took at the Italian Market. Would I need individuals permission for this?

    1. Andy Baldwin Post author

      If people can be identified in the image it is best to get permission. You might check or other stock photo companies for a crowd image rather than taking your own.

    2. Tim Trott

      You can find photo release forms online. As the other person said, if the people are recognizable, you should get their permission. It’s legal to take pictures in a public space where there is no expectation of privacy, but you can’t use the photos for profit.


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