The Image Detective

It’s never been easier to find the perfect image or inspiration for your book design, but how do you go about tracking down the original artist in the age of Pinterest and Tumblr? We talk to freelance permissions editor Sarah Thomas about navigating copyright and her work in book publishing over the last twenty years.


How did you get your start in book publishing?

My first job in publishing was as the assistant to the Marketing Manager at Penguin Books. It was a terrific role and taught me so much about the publishing industry. I had always loved books and reading, so to finally immerse myself in that industry was a dream come true.

After my stint at Penguin I went to the ‘other side’ and worked for the head office of Borders for a number of years. It was interesting to see the bookseller’s point of view and deal with books more as a saleable product as opposed to being part of the creative process on the publishing side.

Was image permissions a role you fell into or something you had a particular interest in?

There was no direct path to my current role, but it sprang out of a general love of the industry and a desire to learn new areas of the business. After Borders, I left publishing for a while, but found I missed it and went back as the assistant to the MD of Macmillan Education Australia. It was here that I ended up in the role of Photo & Permissions Manager, which I did for a number of years before I went freelance after having my first child.

It wasn’t until I moved into educational publishing that I became aware of the complex requirements of all the content that goes into a textbook. As I learnt more about it I realised the research side was particularly appealing. I don’t have a legal background and all my copyright knowledge has grown with the job. I have been working in this very niche area of educational publishing for over ten years now and it is more complicated than most people realise. It is amazing how often authors think they can find something on the Internet and we will just be able to click our fingers and use it!



Reverse image search tools have made it easier to track down original copyright holders, while Tumblr and Pinterest have made it harder. Any tricks for navigating the internet rabbit hole?

Reverse image search tools are fantastic, but in some cases you get hundreds of results and it can be difficult to decide who might be the copyright holder. Depending on the type of image, you’ll need to look for a result that leads to an image library or an identifiable organisation. Or if it is an artwork, you’ll need to look for a result that leads to a gallery.

Reverse image searching is not always an easy answer, though. If a result leads you to a gallery, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the gallery is the copyright holder – they might just be showing the artwork. Just to make it complicated, the copyright to some artworks may still be with the artist and some might be with a particular gallery. It depends on the agreement made for that artwork. But it does give you a place to start, and from there you can do further research on the artist to see who they are, whether they have retained all their own copyright and where else they may be exhibited.

And on the other hand, any tips for creatives in protecting their work online so that it can be traced back to them? 

Copyright is automatic as soon you produce something of creative merit. Protecting it is difficult and there are hundreds of instances where companies have been caught out stealing or appropriating other people’s designs for their own use. Recently a major clothing label was busted using an independent artist’s designs and their defence was they had tweaked the image. Unfortunately they got away with it because the artist didn’t have the financial means to take the organisation to court.

People who have blogs often think they can just take an image and use it because it is not for commercial use. What they don’t often realise is that creators have a moral right to be attributed as the creator of that work and anyone who does not acknowledge them is breaking the law.

For any creatives who have images/artwork, I would suggest placing watermarks on everything that can only be removed once an image is purchased.

For creatives who have other types of content (such as text/academic/research), you just need to be vigilant in running web searches to ensure your content is not being used. Unfortunately anyone can copy and paste a section of text or take a screenshot of something and reuse it. If you do find that your content has been used without your permission, get in touch with that person and ask them to remove it. If they don’t then you can take further legal action (and the threat of that is usually enough to get people to comply).



Any trade secrets? Or golden rules?

My golden rule with copyright is to never assume anything. So often people think they can take someone else’s work, change a few things and then use it however they like. It doesn’t work like that because there is no definite rule on how much you need to change a work for it to become a new work.

This is well represented by the copyright case between Larrikin Publishing and Men at Work. Larrikin claimed that Men at Work used two bars from the famous ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’ without permission in their song ‘Down Under’. Most people would think that only two bars wouldn’t represent a significant part, but a judge ruled that in fact they did. Men at Work were then liable for back payment of royalties, which amounted to a large sum.

As for a trade secret, well, you would be surprised how many free images there are available online these days. If you are looking for something very specific that you can’t find via an image library, I would always recommend researching the type of image you are looking for and then adjusting your search settings to show images labelled for reuse. Also keep in mind that many US Government Departments are free from copyright and some of them, such as NASA, have extensive image libraries that you can use.

What are your favourite image sites?

There is a wealth of image libraries online now, both stock libraries and free resources. My favourites are iStock, Getty, Science Photo Library, Stock Snap, Foodies Feed, Pixabay and Styled Stock.

Flickr allows you to search for images released under a Creative Commons license and they also have a section called The Commons, which showcases public image collections of major organisations, universities, galleries and libraries around the world. These images are generally free from copyright restrictions, but you do need to read each organisation’s rights statement first.

I also love Trove, which allows you to search for historical photos via the National Library of Australia.



What do you enjoy most about your work? What’s the most challenging?

I find the research side the most enjoyable part of my work and also the most challenging. Authors will submit their manuscripts along with the items they wish to use in the book. They generally submit the first source details that they have for an item, which is not always the correct source. I need to look at each item carefully to ensure we do in fact have the correct source before applying for permission.

For example, we could believe we were following everything to the letter by applying for permission before we go to print, and receive permission from that source, but afterwards it turns out we have the wrong source. If the correct copyright holder was inclined they could take us to court and we could end up having to pulp every single copy of the book, and financial costs would be payable.

Describe your average work day as a permissions freelancer.

My average day involves checking my email to ensure there’s nothing that needs immediate action. Then I assess where each of my projects are at in terms of deadlines and budgets, and work on applying for permission for items that will be used in each of my projects, and/or search for any required images. I also make a point of updating any work-in-progress archive files – this is where we store all the paperwork related to permissions grants.

I currently work predominately with a science, health and technology publisher, and I have also worked with government departments, small independent publishers and other major educational publishers around Australia.

A lot of publishing companies have downsized over the last few years. How has that affected your role?

Ten years ago every major educational publishing company had a team of permissions and photo researchers, and trade publishers would have a full rights department. Now many of these roles are being moved offshore to countries that don’t have a full understanding of our copyright law. This brings up issues once a permissions or rights request becomes problematic and it requires someone with experience and understanding of the wider implications of copyright to correctly solve it. It is too risky to just assume it has been done correctly, or to assume you won’t get caught. Publishers are also relying more and more on authors doing their own copyright clearance in the early stages of the manuscript submission. Realistically, all authors or anyone working in publishing really should have a basic understanding of copyright law.

Your top online resources?

Australian Copyright Council – for terrific resources including legal advice and information sheets on all areas of copyright

Copyright Agency – for help facilitating licenses to reuse content

Viscopy – for licenses to use artwork

APRA/AMCOS – for licenses to play/reproduce musical content

Rights Link – for licenses to use content from a variety of worldwide publishers

Aboriginal Artists Agency – for licenses to use Aboriginal artwork



Thanks to Sarah for sharing her experience and knowledge with us. For further information and to discuss her services, she can be contacted on 0410 574 727.

Editor’s note: for an interesting discussion on the role of copyright in concepts and reference materials, as well as the myth of the 10% rule, check out episode six of Jacky Winter Gives you the Biz, a podcast produced by our friends at The Jacky Winter Group.