Get Permission to Use Copyrighted Photos

by John Soares on February 14, 2011

What I Saw

I’m up before dawn most winter mornings (usually about 5 a.m.), and I typically take a 10-minute walk with my morning coffee on the road outside my rural home in the Shasta Valley in far northern California. Recently I saw a brilliant meteor streak slowly across the sky, and I wrote about the fireball on my Northern California Hiking Trails blog:

Usually I’ll see a meteor or two in the 10-15 minutes I’m out. But this morning, absolutely clear and calm,  I saw magnificent  orange fireball slowly move across over half the sky. It was nearly overhead, and I first noticed it when it was about 10 degrees east of the zenith. It moved nearly due west to finally disappear over the Eddy mountains.

It was one of those moments that come too rarely in life, a moment when you know you’re part of something beautiful, something special.

Go have a look at the post, and make sure you note the picture, its caption, and what I say about the photographer at the bottom of the post. We’ll wait…

Why I Wanted a Picture

A fireball is one of the supreme visual experiences of a lifetime. I’m apparently in a minority by thinking that most blog posts shouldn’t have a picture, but some posts really do need a good picture, so I went searching online.

How I Find Pictures and Online Images

For my hiking blog I usually do a Google image search for keywords, along with “.gov” because U.S. government photos and other images can usually be used without permission. (We already own them.)

But I didn’t find any good government photos. (Momentary pause for your snarky thoughts…) I did come across a great shot of a fireball in the Mojave desert taken by professional astrophotographer Wally Pacholka. Of course, Wally owns the copyright.

My Request for Permission to Use the Photo

I went to Wally’s website, found his e-mail address, and quickly sent this quick e-mail to Wally:

Hello Wally,

I saw a fireball this morning (reported to the American Meteor Society), and decided to do a brief blog post about it on my Northern California Hiking Trails blog.

I’d like to include your photo ( with the post, but will only do so with your permission. I’d link the image to, plus give you a keyword-rich text link. My blog has a Google page rank of 3, and the post will likely get 300-plus views, plus an unknown amount over time from Google searches, etc.

Here’s the post link:

And you have some stunning shots!



Note what I included:

  • Identification of exactly what I wanted to use, including the specific link (which also lets Wally know it’s a low-resolution photo)
  • Where I wanted to use it, with the link to my blog post so he could see that it’s a quality site
  • How Wally will benefit — number of readers, plus a keyword-rich backlinks to his site
  • A genuine compliment about Wally’s top-notch astronomy pictures

Wally sent an e-mail back granting permission to use the photo, but only for the specific purpose I mentioned. (Smart guy.)

Why Bloggers and Web Writers Must Get Permission to Use Copyrighted Material

#1. You’re legally required to do so (but see “fair use” below).

#2. You’re ethically required to do so.

I know these days many people think nothing of using other people’s copyrighted pictures, words, art, music, videos, etc without permission, and frequently without even attribution. It’s wrong.

In this post I focus on photos, but the same applies to all instances where you want to use someone’s copyrighted material.

How Wally Benefits From My Use of His Copyrighted Material

Wally benefits in two ways: readers can go directly to his website from my link, and he got a backlink with keywords from a page rank 3 website.

Fair Use of Copyrighted Photos

Note that in some instances you can use copyrighted photo, but only if such use falls under the “fair use” concept of United States copyright law. Here’s the relevant section defining fair use from the U.S. Copyright Office:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

It’s not always clear-cut, and you open yourself up to legal action by using a copyrighted photo and claiming fair use. For more details, see this piece on Social Media Examiner.

Important Update, March 3, 2011

I’ve done a bit of sleuthing, and I found this on the website about a recent case involving unauthorized use of a photo:

Webcopyplus, a web writing services firm, confirmed it recently paid approximately $4,000 US to settle an image copyright infringement claim, and warns web designers, developers, business owners and other marketers they may also be exposed to such claims, with statutory damages of up to $150,000 per image.

You can read the whole story about what happened directly from Rick Sloboda, a senior copywriter at Webcopyplus who had to deal with the mess:

Why would copywriters at Webcopyplus pay $4,000 for a digital photo that retails for about $10? Well, frankly, we screwed up. It’s an expensive lesson on copyright laws that we wish to share with other marketers, so you don’t make the same mistake.

Your Take

What’s your view on the importance of getting permission before using copyrighted material? How do you handle similar situations?

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Soares February 14, 2011 at 10:17 AM

Note that a person doesn’t have to explicitly say a photo is copyrighted, or that text is copyrighted. If they created it, they have the copyright automatically.
John Soares recently posted…What to Do If You Take a Blogging Break


2 TJ McDowell February 17, 2011 at 5:50 PM

True – and you don’t have to do anything special to notify the government of your work to own the copyright. If you took a picture, you own it.

I guess the only images I use without express permission are images from Amazon where I’m promoting the product. I have a preview image for each blog post, and I use Amazon’s images for those previews. Of course, later in the post, I’m using my Amazon affiliate link to point people to buy the product from Amazon, so I’m not really too concerned. If I’m breaking any rules legally, I can’t see them being offended by my use of their image to promote their products, and they’re definitely not going to be upset from an ethical violation standpoint.
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3 John Soares February 18, 2011 at 11:59 AM

TJ, I’ve also used the occasional image from Amazon in a post, using the same logic as you. I’m an affiliate for Amazon, and they definitely allow using images in their specific code snippets for inserting into websites and blog posts.

And I’d be fine if someone used the image from one of my book covers in my sidebar if they were writing an article about the book and were linking to me.
John Soares recently posted…2010 Book and E-Book Sales Data for the United States


4 Wendy January 15, 2013 at 1:20 PM

I stumbled onto your site. Glad I did.

I have been researching this topic and I disagree with your statement “If they created it, they have the copyright automatically.” In most cases this is true but just because I took a photo does not necessarily make it a true copyright of mine.

Attorney Dianne Brinson states:

“Before you take that photo, you may need permission for the following: Photographing buildings, works of art, or other copyrighted items; Photographing people; Photographing on public or private property. In this short article, attorney Dianne Brinson briefly discusses when permission may be required. (From htttp:// ) The comment by TJ McDowell that said “If you took a picture, you own it.” may not necessarily be true.


5 Tom McGuire February 14, 2011 at 4:10 PM

Wow, John, I wasn’t aware. I have used just a couple of photos on my site that are not mine, but, although I did not seek permission, I fully attributed. In the future, I will take your much more thoughtful approach.
Tom McGuire recently posted…GAMBOLIN MAN PARSED &amp GOOGLED- Vox Clamantis in Deserto


6 John Soares February 14, 2011 at 4:27 PM

Tom, it’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of. You may recall that before I did my first post on the Northern California Hiking Trails blog I wrote and asked if I could use a couple of your pictures, and if it would be OK to do so in the future. You of course said yes. I also did the same with a post I wrote featuring Calipidder.

Many bloggers won’t mind if you use a picture without specific permission, if their website is mentioned with link, especially if they know you and trust you, but it’s not always the case. Professional photographers (and I’m not one) are especially careful about letting their images be used.
John Soares recently posted…Why Freelance Writers Should Specialize


7 Patricia@lavenderoils February 15, 2011 at 12:47 AM

Hi John

I agree with you 100%. I would not download anything that does not belong to me. It is stealing if used without permission from the legal owner. For professional photographers this is their livelihood, so I can understand why they get aggrieved when this practice continues to flourish on the net!

Some bloggers are just not aware of these things so good you have written about it. I will be RT the post so all my followers can see it too.

My niece does all my graphics so at the moment I haven’t had to look for photos. However, when/if I do I will make sure to follow the correct procedure. Thanks for the reminder John. Appreciated.

Patricia Perth Australia
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8 John Soares February 15, 2011 at 8:33 AM

Patricia, it’s the professional photographers who are usually the most concerned about it. I’ve featured several pro outdoors photographers on the Northern California Hiking Trails blog, so I’ve dealt with the permission issues and seen how they take measures to protect their intellectual/creative property.

And thanks for the retweet on Twitter. Much appreciated!
John Soares recently posted…How I Improved My Sales Page and Increased Conversion Rates for My E-Book


9 Anne Waymn February 15, 2011 at 7:58 AM

John, it blows me away that folks don’t know this… I think I learned enough about copyrights in high school to be aware I can’t copy anyone’s work, text, graphic, photo, etc. without permission. Says something scary about education these days, but that’s another topic.

What I love about your approach is the benefit to the copyright holder. I’ll bet you’ve met and gotten to know some wonderful people that way… really a great way to start a relationship.

Anne Waymn recently posted…How To Get The Research Done


10 John Soares February 15, 2011 at 8:37 AM

Anne, I have made several lasting connections with other bloggers just by contacting them about photo permissions. Some have written posts with links to my hiking blog, and they’ve put me in their blog rolls. I also recommended a one of them for a San Francisco Bay Area speaking gig.
John Soares recently posted…Why I Won’t Buy Demand Media Stock


11 WJM July 12, 2011 at 8:06 PM

Sure you can – if it’s within the limits of the copyright law (non-substantial portion of a work, fair use/fair dealing, copyright does not subsist or has ceased to subsist.)

Copyright deosn’t inhibit all uses of all things for all time.


12 Anne Waymn February 15, 2011 at 9:05 AM

Why am I not surprised!
Anne Waymn recently posted…How To Get The Research Done


13 Eric Soares February 15, 2011 at 11:44 AM

John, I agree with you 100%. I use a lot of photos in my posts and I always get permission and ask if they have any special requirements or requests. For example, they may want you to mention the name of the person in the shot.


14 John Soares February 15, 2011 at 1:25 PM

Eric, I wonder if there is a relationship between increasing age and increased understanding of the importance of respecting copyright. Eric, you get it. Anne Wayman gets it. Patricia gets it. Tom McGuire gets it.

Interesting that so far we haven’t had any comments from people under 40 or so…
John Soares recently posted…What’s the Best Use of Your Time Right Now


15 Eric Soares February 15, 2011 at 3:46 PM

The age question is legitimate. I say that because I was a college professor for nearly 30 years. At first, everyone seemed to know copyright laws and etiquette; a few years later, with more foreign students taking my classes, I had to occasionally tell a student about copyright, plagiarism, etc. And then, with the advent of the full-blown internet, I had to give long lectures in every class and provide handouts to students or they would all copy and/or steal.

It’s sort of like music. When we were young, most people bought music and maybe taped a copy of a friend’s album. Now, it is common for people to steal music off the internet.


16 Laurel L. Russwurm February 22, 2012 at 8:38 PM

“It’s sort of like music. When we were young, most people bought music and maybe taped a copy of a friend’s album. Now, it is common for people to steal music off the internet.”

Taping a copy of a friend’s album is exactly the same as downloading an album off the Internet. If one is stealing, so is the other.


17 Eric Soares February 15, 2011 at 11:49 AM

Oh yeah, John. I forgot to mention that I always put a copyright label over the photo with the photographer’s name, so people are less likely to steal the image and will know who to contact to use it.

You earlier told me to put an internet site on the photo, to make it easy for users/buyers to contact you or the photographer. Good idea!


18 John Soares February 15, 2011 at 1:27 PM

Eric, putting your domain name on the photo is a good idea, especially when you have high-quality photos like you do.

It also helps with branding. The more times people see the more likely they are to think of you and associate you with sea kayaking.
John Soares recently posted…What to Do If You Take a Blogging Break


19 Eli February 15, 2011 at 3:32 PM

Thanks for this post John. I don’t have a blog yet but I’m currently doing research to get started. I’m new to blogging and have been wondering about some of the rules here. It seems that many bloggers don’t follow rules like this. I have a friend that has a recipe blog and she put a recipe for a pizza and then just copied a picture of a pizza from a pizza restaurants website and posted it next to the recipe. This didn’t seem right to me but I wasn’t sure about the rules. Thank you for being very clear.



20 John Soares February 15, 2011 at 4:41 PM

Eli, I’m glad I could help you out. You’re smart to try to figure out the best ways to get along with others. A couple pieces of advice:

1. Use a self-hosted Wordpress blog.

2. Start reading blogs about blogging. is a biggie and has a lot of good information.
John Soares recently posted…Listen to my Text and Academic Authors Podcast Interview


21 John Soares February 15, 2011 at 4:43 PM

And a third piece of advice: go to and get an account so your photo will show up beside your blog posts.
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22 Maureen Carruthers February 17, 2011 at 7:16 PM

Hi John,

It sounds silly, but it would not have occurred to me to simply ask for permission to use a photo–I tend to assume copyrighted images are simply off limits. Thanks for the reminder that most people are happy to share.

Note: Many Flickr users use a Creative Commons ( licence for their photos which means while attribution is still required, the permission to use the photo is provided in advance. The advanced search feature makes it easy to filter results so one is not tempted to use an off-limits photo.
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23 John Soares February 18, 2011 at 10:31 AM

Maureen, I’ve found that many photographers are more than willing to have their work shared on quality blogs, as long as they get full attribution with a link.

And thanks for sharing the Creative Commons link with us. I’ve used that before, and it can be quite useful.
John Soares recently posted…2010 Book and E-Book Sales Data for the United States


24 Ben February 19, 2011 at 5:30 AM

I was just about to say this. :) I often use other people’s photos on my blog posts, but only if they have a Creative Commons licence. I always give a link back to the photo. I have the following page bookmarked for finding images:
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25 John Soares February 19, 2011 at 8:49 AM

Ben, thanks for sharing the flickr creative commons link. I’m currently writing a post for my Northern California Hiking Trails blog. Yesterday I e-mailed a newspaper writer asking if I could use a specific picture. He just wrote back to say yes.
John Soares recently posted…What to Do If You Take a Blogging Break


26 Brad Harmon @ Big Feet Marketing February 19, 2011 at 2:34 PM

Great advice, John. Your email is a great template to use as it covers everything.

I tend to use photos under CC license from Flickr or ones I purchase through iStockphoto. I generally don’t have the patience to wait for a response for permission before I publish my posts, but I’ve missed out on using some really great photos.

Thanks for the tip about .gov photos. I’ve never tried that.

P.S. I found this post through Kristi’s Fetching Friday at
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27 John Soares February 19, 2011 at 5:13 PM

Brad, I also occasionally purchase photos from iStockPhoto, but as I said, I don’t often put photos in posts, especially here on

The .gov photos work well for my hiking blog because there are so many government agencies involved with the outdoors: Forest Service, BLM, Department of Fish and Game.
John Soares recently posted…How I Improved My Sales Page and Increased Conversion Rates for My E-Book


28 Holly Bowne February 22, 2011 at 6:08 PM

That was really a stunning photo! I like to have a photo accompany each of my blog posts, but I either use my own photos, or, as many of the above commenters mentioned, I use Flickr photos with the CC license.

I have run across some great photos where I note that all rights are reserved but have been too lazy to contact the photographer. However, you’ve inspired me!


29 John Soares February 23, 2011 at 6:24 AM

Holly, I’m glad you make sure you only use photos with permission. I’ve also seen a lot of copyrighted photos on people’s blogs. Note that some photographers, or their organizations, will require a fee to use a photo.
John Soares recently posted…Listen to my Text and Academic Authors Podcast Interview


30 Khaled@Crystal glass beads February 23, 2011 at 4:07 AM

I wasn’t aware that Government photos can be used without permission I wonder if the same applies in the UK as it does in the US. When I have used photos in the past have always purchased them from stock photography sites, the thought never occurred to me to ask to use someone’s images. It would be a lot easier than hunting round to find the right image to purchase and cheaper.
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31 John Soares February 23, 2011 at 6:26 AM

Khaled, I don’t know about UK government photos, or Canada, or other countries. If someone knows, please tell us here in the comments.

The one problem with asking for permission is that you have to wait to hear from the photographer, and the answer may be no. With the stock photo agencies you pay your money and get your photo.
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32 Andrew @ Blogging Guide February 24, 2011 at 5:06 AM

Professionally handled! I never thought you can get a backlink through photos. That is a really new and nice idea for me. And it is just proper to ask for permission for anything that is not yours that you want to use. Thanks for all the tips regarding where to get great photos.
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33 John Soares February 24, 2011 at 9:01 AM

Andrew, I’ve probably given out 20 or more links to other sites just because I used their photos, or they allowed me to use their photos in a post I was doing that mentioned them.

And for people who put a lot of photos on their blogs, like I do with my Northern California Hiking Trails site, make sure you put good keywords in all your descriptions so Google can give you good ranking for them. I get significant traffic for NCHT because I’m in the first row of pics for many image searches.
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34 gnarlydog February 24, 2011 at 6:48 PM

hmmm…., there is no mention of Creative Commons use of images in publications that are commercial. Most CC licenses say NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE. So, a blog that is making money (a lot of them are) technically can’t use those images.
Also should not forget that images CAN be used without permission from the author, but only in very specific instances. One of them is if in the interest of the public in a review where criticism applies. In other words for example when I am reviewing something and I need an image of a product that I want to compare/criticize. Not sure if international copyright laws allow that but that is the case here in Australia.
After several images of mine were stolen I look seriously into the Copyright Law and familiarized myself with the terms.
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35 John Soares February 25, 2011 at 6:20 AM

Good points here. I’ve only used CC photos a few times, and I only used photos that didn’t put restrictions on use.

And thanks for the explanation about when to use photos without permission, although I want to know more about it. If it applies in Australia, then logically it should apply to the rest of the world. 😉
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36 Laurel L. Russwurm March 7, 2011 at 10:34 AM

Sorry I’ve just skimmed as I’m playing hooky from writing, but i have a few cents to throw in:

The US government publishes direct to the Public Domain, meaning anyone can use it. They do this on the understanding that it has already be paid for with tax dollars.

Canada has Crown Copyright, which means our government doesn’t share. We’re in the process of rewriting our copyright law, and a great many Canadians believe that we ought to abolish Crown Copyright as well. I believe the UK has Crown Copyright, but I’m not sure about Australia.

Copyright terms used to be short (7 – 14 years) after which time creative work entered the public domain to benefit the culture. In the US today copyright terms are now 70 years after the death of the creator, in Canada it is 50 years after the death of the creator before work goes into the Public Domain. Corporations get 90 years. It’s horrifically difficult and convoluted, and a great many works get lost forever (orphan works) as a result of people being afraid to copy them because no one knows who they belong too.

As a writer I believe that is bad for me as a creator as well as for our culture, which is why I think Creative Commons licensing is awesome. @gnarlydog has made an assumption that I challenge when he says “Most CC licenses say NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE.”

Even though Creative Commons is trying to keep a central repository, anyone can affix a CC license to their work without telling them, so there is no way I know of making a sweeping statement like that. The point of CC licenses is that the creator can choose, and one of the choices is commercial reuse. I’ve blogged about CC a fair bit, but this article is the possibly my most comprehensive:

The easiest way to search for CC images you can use without having to hope you can sweet talk the creator into granting permission (which, after all, takes time which bloggers often do not have) is by choosing “Advanced Search” for either Google Images or Flickr and choose the “re-use” option. That way your search returns images that you can legally use. It can save a a blogger a lifetime of plowing through copyright images that you can’t legally use. I’ve learned to always make sure to attribute the art or photography of others, even when in the Public Domain.
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37 Kent Hadley March 25, 2011 at 12:26 PM

Thanks so much for writing this article. Before I learned how to hyperlink my photos they were routinely taken and used by without my knowledge. Now at least when they are stolen the photo links back to my web page where they were stolen from. I am more than happy to give any of my photos away but please ask.


38 Ray Sutera February 8, 2012 at 4:23 PM


I’m just getting started in writing and I think I’m learning the basics of copyrights well enough but I have a question that I can’t seem to find an answer to: How does one find out who owns the rights to any given online photo? It’s so common to see people posting other peoples’ photos that it seems almost impossible to track down the owner. Is there embedded info in a photo or do I have to find some way to search for the owner?


39 Laurel L. Russwurm February 22, 2012 at 8:58 PM

Dear Ray:

Sadly there is no magic way to tell who to attribute a photo to. The safest course of action is to either get permission or search for Creative Commons licensed images (explained above).


40 Ray Sutera February 23, 2012 at 3:08 AM

But that’s the problem – there’s no way to know who to get permission from.

Maybe the best course is to just use photos whose ownership is known and forget the rest.


41 Christy Pessemier December 18, 2012 at 7:21 PM

This all makes sense. Thanks for writing it.

A few questions: I have been using Microsoft Office royalty free images. Do I still need to give credit for those, even if they are listed as royalty free?

Also- when someone steals a photo from your site and you get the back link, what can you do about it?

I’ve also had a few bloggers pull my posts and post them on their site, and then tell me after the fact. It feels kinda wrong.

I appreciate your thoughts.
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42 Laurel L. Russwurm February 11, 2013 at 2:11 PM

Dear Christie:

A royalty is money paid to the monopoly rights holder, who very is not the person who created the work.

Attribution is something else entirely. If someone else write the words or took the photo or painted the picture that you are using, the classy thing to do is to credit the creator. I make a point of attribution, even if the work is in the public domain. Incorrectly attributing a work, like another blogger taking credit for your work, would be plagiarism.

Copyright infringement is not stealing, it’s copyright infringement.


43 Toni Torras February 11, 2013 at 12:09 PM

I requested photos permissions to some US Departments (like EPA) and materials manufacturers (like Andersen, Fypon, etc.)
for its use in our new Web Site. Some of them get to me the permission. But others don’t answer to me. What can I do in these cases?
Thank you


44 John Soares February 23, 2013 at 6:51 AM

Toni, you can usually use images produced/created by the U.S. government. You will need to get permission from manufacturers, and if they don’t reply, you can’t use their pics.
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45 Toni Torras February 28, 2013 at 4:18 AM

Thank’s John


46 JR Villapena February 15, 2013 at 4:08 AM

Hi John,

I have been looking for a formal way of asking permission to use an image, if ever I come across, that I may use for my blog. Thanks for having this available for everyone. I got the idea of great post with a little flavor of adding an image or images that may attribute directly or indirectly with the work that I have done or I will be doing in the future. But don’t know where to start and this one really showed the ropes. Just a question thought, how about if I have done a post on my blog that by accident have added words that may be found to other posts? Or if I want to add acknowledgements about inspirations of my blog to a specific blog or article that I have come across. How to go about that?

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47 John Soares February 23, 2013 at 6:53 AM

JR, you can link to other posts that have useful information, or that you need to cite as a source of information.

You shouldn’t take text verbatim from other sites: it can be copyright infringement, which is against the law. If you’ve done that, go change it now and put it in your own words.
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48 JR Villapena February 25, 2013 at 7:47 PM

Hi John,

Thanks for the advice. I will be reviewing my blog posts as soon as I am done replying to your comment.

Again, thanks and keep up the great contributions. ‘Til next time.
JR Villapena recently posted…Respect Does Not Come in a Plate. Ways of Earning Respect.


49 Kori May 30, 2014 at 1:39 PM

Sir, can a photo be altered, say converted to a line sketch with alterations, and be used without copyright infringement?


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