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UK Laws For Sharing Photos Online

The Legal Landscape of Online Image Sharing in the UK

It has become an everyday occurrence for millions of people around the world to share photographs online, this includes on social media, their websites and other online channels. However, in the United Kingdom, certain laws govern the sharing of these images, whether they are self-taken or found on the internet. In this article we address common questions and concerns regarding these laws to help individuals and businesses navigate the complexities of online image sharing.

Laws For Sharing Photos Online

Can I Share Photos Online Which I Have Taken Myself?

In the UK, the general rule is that if you have taken a photo, you own the copyright to that image. This means that you do have the right to share photograph’s you have taken online. However, there are some exceptions:

Privacy Concerns With Sharing Your Own Photos

If the photo includes other people, especially when taken in private settings, their consent may be required to share the image legally. The issue of consent in relation to photo sharing is primarily influenced by the context in which the photo was taken and the expectations of privacy of the individuals involved.

If a person is in a private setting, such as their home, a private party, or a private institution, they generally have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In these scenarios, obtaining consent is necessary before sharing the image. This is because the individuals in the photograph did not expect to be photographed and certainly did not expect those photos to be shared publicly.

Sharing Your Own Photos Taken In Public Settings

Legally, anyone in the UK can photograph people in public places without their consent. This includes streets, parks, and public events. The absence of a specific privacy right in these public settings means that individuals are generally deemed to have a reduced expectation of privacy while in public. These photographs can generally be used for personal, editorial, artistic, and journalistic purposes without needing the consent of the people in the images. However, the use of these photos for commercial purposes would require consent.

Sharing Your Own Photos For Commercial Use

When considering sharing photographs for commercial purposes in the UK, such as in advertising or marketing, the legal landscape becomes more stringent regarding consent, regardless of the setting in which the photo was taken. This heightened requirement for consent stems from the rights of individuals to control the usage of their likeness for commercial gain.

In a commercial context, the use of a person’s image extends beyond mere representation; it becomes a matter of using their likeness for profit. Therefore, the law tends to protect individuals from having their images exploited for commercial benefits without their permission.

Consent is vital in these cases, not just as a formality, but as a legal necessity. The absence of consent can lead to various legal issues, including claims for infringement of privacy rights or misuse of personal data under the Data Protection Act and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These regulations underscore the importance of respecting individuals’ control over their personal data, which includes photographic images.

Moreover, when a photograph is used for commercial purposes without the subject’s consent, it might also involve issues of misrepresentation, particularly if the individual is portrayed in a misleading way or in a context that they would not endorse. This can lead to claims of defamation or false endorsement, which can carry significant legal consequences.

Sharing Your Own Photos Taken In Sensitive Contexts

The legality of sharing photos taken in sensitive contexts, even in public settings, isn’t always straightforward and can depend on various factors, including the nature of the photo and the context in which it’s shared.

If sharing the photo can be seen as harassment or an invasion of privacy, it could potentially be illegal under UK laws such as the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 or the Human Rights Act 1998, which protects the right to respect for private and family life.

While not always illegal, sharing images that cause significant embarrassment or distress to an individual could be challenged under privacy laws or as a form of harassment, especially if it results in tangible harm to the individual.

If the photo is shared in a way that misrepresents the individual’s actions or character, leading to defamation, it can be illegal. Defamation laws in the UK protect individuals from false statements that can harm their reputation.


When dealing with sharing images found online compared to sharing images you took yourself, there is a lot more to consider and the scenario changes dramatically. These photographs are typically protected by copyright, and using them without permission or the appropriate license can lead to legal challenges.

There are nuances, such as the concept of fair use, which might allow using an image under specific circumstances like education or news reporting and some online images are available under Creative Commons licenses, which usually permit sharing under certain conditions, but it’s crucial to understand and adhere to these stipulations.

Copyright Laws For Sharing Photos You Found Online

Most photos found online are protected by copyright. Using these without permission or appropriate licensing is against UK copyright laws and will often lead to legal challenges. Without consent from the copyright owner, typically the photographer or the entity that commissioned the photography, you are not allowed to share any images you did not take yourself.

There are a few caveats to this which are worth noting:

Fair Dealing

In the United Kingdom, ‘fair dealing’ is a key concept within copyright law that allows for certain uses of copyrighted material, including photographs, without the need for permission from the copyright holder. This legal provision is designed to balance the rights of copyright owners with the public’s interest in accessing and using works for specific, socially beneficial purposes. However, understanding what constitutes ‘fair dealing’ requires a close look at the acceptable and unacceptable uses under this provision.

The UK’s Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 outlines specific situations where fair dealing applies:

Non-Commercial Research and Private Study

Individuals are permitted to use copyrighted photographs for personal research or study, provided the use is fair and does not include wide distribution.

Criticism and Review

This allows for the use of copyrighted material in the context of critical analysis or review, such as in academic papers, film reviews, or art critiques. The key condition is that the work is used to support a point or argument, not merely copied for its own sake.

Reporting Current Events

In journalism, fair dealing permits the use of copyrighted photographs for reporting current events, under the condition that the photograph is not used for a different purpose and is accompanied by sufficient acknowledgment.

The determination of what is ‘fair’ depends on several factors, such as the purpose of the use, the amount and importance of the portion used in relation to the whole work, and the effect of the use on the market value of the work. If the use of the photograph competes with the market of the original work or undermines the copyright holder’s ability to profit from it, it is less likely to be considered fair.

Even under fair dealing, proper acknowledgment or attribution to the copyright owner is usually required, unless it is impractical to do so.

How can I legally share images for educational purposes?

In educational settings, the use of copyrighted photographs may be allowed. The primary condition for the use of copyrighted photographs in education is that it must be for non-commercial purposes. This means the use should be directly related to learning, teaching, or research activities within educational institutions. For instance, using a photograph as part of a classroom presentation, in student assignments, or in academic research papers is generally permissible. However, reproducing these photographs in materials that will be commercially published or widely distributed outside the classroom setting would likely exceed the boundaries of fair dealing.

A key requirement when using copyrighted photographs under the educational fair dealing exception is the acknowledgment of sources. This means that educators and students should provide appropriate attribution to the original creator of the photograph. Failure to do so could undermine the fair dealing defence and potentially lead to copyright infringement claims.

How Can I legally share images Via Creative Commons & Other Licenses

Some photographers release their images under Creative Commons licenses, which typically allow for sharing with certain conditions. These photos are available under licenses that allow for broader use, like Creative Commons. These licenses may permit sharing, modifying, and even commercial use, but it is essential to adhere to the specific terms of the license, such as attribution or non-commercial restrictions. Creative Commons and similar licensing schemes represent a significant departure from traditional copyright restrictions, offering more flexible terms for the use of copyrighted works, including photographs.

Types of Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons licenses vary in terms of the freedoms and restrictions they provide. Some allow only non-commercial use of the work, while others permit modifications and even commercial use. The specific type of Creative Commons license applied to an image dictates what users can and cannot do with it. Common types include:

Attribution (CC BY): This license allows others to distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the work, even commercially, as long as the original creator is credited.

Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA): Similar to the CC BY, but any new works created from the original must be licensed under identical terms.

Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND): Allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as the work is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the creator.

Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC): Allows others to remix, adapt, and build upon the work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge the creator and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

When using a photograph under a Creative Commons license, it is crucial to adhere strictly to the terms set out in the license. This includes respecting restrictions such as non-commercial use, no derivative works, or share-alike requirements. Non-compliance with these terms can result in copyright infringement.

It’s important to note that in the UK, Creative Commons licenses do not automatically include a waiver of the creator’s moral rights, which include the right to be identified as the author and the right to object to derogatory treatment of the work.

What happens if I share a photo without the owner’s consent?

In the United Kingdom, the illegal sharing of images, particularly copyrighted and private images, can result in various legal penalties. These penalties are established under different areas of law, each addressing specific aspects of illegal image sharing.

Illegal sharing of copyrighted images constitutes copyright infringement. In the UK, copyright laws are enforced under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The penalties for copyright infringement can be severe and may include:

Copyright Infringement Penalties

In civil cases of copyright infringement, the damages awarded are typically based on the actual financial loss suffered by the copyright owner. This can include loss of earnings from the work and potential damages for additional harm caused by the infringement. There is no fixed upper limit for these damages, and they are determined case by case.

For criminal copyright infringement, especially in cases of commercial-scale piracy or counterfeiting, penalties can be more severe. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 allows for fines and imprisonment. The maximum fine can be unlimited, and imprisonment can be up to 10 years, depending on the severity of the offense.

Data Protection Act and GDPR Violations

Under the Data Protection Act 2018, which incorporates the GDPR into UK law, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) can impose hefty fines for serious breaches. These fines can reach up to £17.5 million or 4% of the company’s total worldwide annual turnover, whichever is higher.

Civil Claims for Privacy Breach

Individuals who sue for breach of privacy can be awarded damages based on the distress caused and any financial loss. The amount varies depending on the severity of the breach and its impact on the individual.


Convictions under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 can lead to a maximum prison sentence of up to six months for summary offenses or up to five years for more serious offenses. Fines can also be imposed, with the amount determined by the court based on the specifics of the case.

Can I face legal action for sharing someone else’s photo on social media?

Yes, sharing someone else’s photo on social media without permission can lead to legal consequences under copyright law. The law, which aims to protect the rights of the original creator, is clear in stating that the creator of a photograph holds the exclusive rights to its distribution and use. When these rights are violated, the copyright holder has the option to enforce their rights through various means.

One of the initial steps a copyright holder might take is to request the unauthorized user to purchase a license for the photo’s use. This can be a straightforward resolution, allowing for the legal use of the image upon agreement. However, if an amicable agreement cannot be reached or if the infringement is of a more serious nature, the copyright holder may escalate the matter to legal action.
Legal actions can involve claims for financial compensation, which may cover the cost of using the photo, any legal costs incurred in pursuing the claim, and potentially additional damages for the infringement. These damages are designed to compensate the copyright owner for any losses suffered due to the unauthorized use of their work and can be substantial.

In cases of deliberate infringement, particularly those on a commercial scale where there’s a clear intent to profit from the unauthorized use of a photo, the consequences can be even more severe. Such infringements may result in criminal prosecution, with penalties that can include heavy fines and, in extreme cases, imprisonment.

What should I do if my private photos are shared online without my consent?

If your private photos are shared online without your consent in the UK, there are several steps you can take to address the situation:

Save The Evidence: Keep all relevant message threads, images, and screenshots, including the URL if it’s a website. Make sure to save these in a secure place, such as a password-protected hard drive.

Report to the Police: You should report the matter to the police by calling 101 or visiting your local police station. If the photos are of an intimate nature, this could be considered a crime under UK law. The police will decide whether to investigate your case further.

Contact Website Owners: Reach out to the owners of the websites where your photos are posted (webmasters) and request the removal of the images. If the images are on multiple websites, you may need to contact each webmaster individually.
Social Media Reporting: Most social media platforms allow users to report inappropriate content or users directly. You should use this feature to report and request the removal of your photos.

Legal Action for Blackmail: If someone is using your private photos to blackmail you, this is a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968. It’s punishable by up to 14 years in prison, depending on the severity of the case. Do not pay any demanded money and contact the police immediately.

Civil Claim for Harassment: If there is a continuous threat of publishing your images that causes alarm or distress, you may have grounds for a civil claim under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Removing Photos After Police Investigation: Wait until the police conclude their investigation before attempting to have the photos removed, as they might be gathering evidence.

Support from Organisations: There are organizations that provide support and advice in these situations, such as the Revenge Porn Helpline for adults over 18 and Victim Support Scotland.