Are All YouTube Thumbnails Copyrighted?

YouTube got its start in 2005 when three former employees of Paypal had the idea that everyday people might want to share home videos or original content with viewers. It has since grown into a colossal platform that everyone from major networks, brands, musicians, entertainment to ordinary people have utilized to promote their products or work and build a career. With YouTube turning into a business for many of its users, there are legalities to consider when uploading content. 

Yes, YouTube thumbnails are copyright protected automatically. This copyright applies whether it is original work or when using copyrighted work within your thumbnail.

Copyright on YouTube thumbnails can be tricky, depending on how they were created. If the work is entirely original, then you have nothing to be concerned about, apart from someone who might use your work without your permission. If you are using any image you did not create or have ownership of in your thumbnail; you could be committing copyright infringement if not done correctly.

How Does Copyright Work on YouTube Thumbnails?

Thumbnails are the image you see when scrolling through the feed of YouTube videos. The purpose of the thumbnail is to entice a viewer to click on the video and watch. Sometimes the image used in the thumbnail won’t be in the video itself, but it markets the video to the audience nonetheless. Due to an oversaturation of content, YouTube video thumbnails are becoming more elaborate to intrigue the viewer to choose theirs over another content creator’s video. 

There are two main categories of copyright that you should be concerned about:

  • Copyright of your own original work
  • Using work that is copyrighted

Taking a deeper look into each of these topics will give you a better understanding of what to do to protect yourself and what not to do in order to avoid legal action.

Copyright of Your Own Original Work

The beauty of uploading content to the internet is the digital trail that follows your work. When creating an original image for your thumbnail, simply uploading it to YouTube automatically makes it protected by copyright. Therefore, you do not need to go through the registration process every time you make a new thumbnail for a YouTube video. 

Unfortunately, simply having copyright does not prevent others from trying to use your work. However, it does give you the right to lodge a complaint or make a request that the platform removes the work on your behalf. Every YouTube video has a flag icon at the bottom, right-hand corner of the video. 

  1. Click on the flag, and a list of options for you to choose from will appear
  2. The option that applies to copyright is “infringes on my rights”
  3. Click on “invades my copyright,” then submit
  4. Once it brings you to the next page, click on “a copyright complaint”
  5. Answer the question, “who is affected?”
  6. Copy and paste the URL of the video to be removed
  7. Copy and paste the URL of your video with the original work
  8. Follow the remainder of the prompts

YouTube will then investigate your claim and take the appropriate action based on their judgment of the information provided. There is no guarantee that the platform will see a violation and remove the video using your thumbnail, and if that is the case, you may look into taking further action outside of YouTube. 

Using Work that is Copyrighted

If you are attempting to make your thumbnail and you desire to use an image that you do not own or did not create, then the rule of thumb is to ask for permission. Track down the owner of the work and request to use their image for your thumbnail. If you can not locate the owner, it is best to find another image; otherwise, you risk copyright infringement. 

If you are found in violation of copyright, there will be consequences. At the very least, your content could be taken down, and all your hard work would be wasted. At the most, you may have to pay penalties, which vary in cost, as restitution. 

The process of requesting permission to use an image is simple and worth the effort.

  1. Find the image you desire to use 
  2. Find out if the image is copyrighted
  3. Know the rights of use
  4. Track down the owner
  5. Ask if monetary compensation is required
  6. Get a written agreement of use

It is rare that you will find copyright-free images on the internet, and those that are will typically be identified as copyright-free. Therefore, use these steps even if you were not able to determine if a work is copyrighted or not. Using the process is not just about avoiding penalties; this also crosses over to issues of morals and ethics. It is proper etiquette to ask for permission. 

Is There a Safe Way to Use a Thumbnail Image?

Because of copyright laws surrounding YouTube thumbnails, you’ll need to proceed with caution when using an image for your own channel. Luckily, there is a safe way to ensure your thumbnail is 100% original. 

The safest way to use a thumbnail image is to create it on your own. Though it may involve a little more work on your end, it is worth the peace of mind you will feel not having to worry about copyright infringement. 

Thankfully, because YouTube is so popular, there are YouTube thumbnail makers that are commercially approved. These thumbnail makers tend to be highly user-friendly so that anyone can create thumbnails safely, no matter their level of expertise. For the program educated, you can always use software like Photoshop or Illustrator to create original images as well. 


It is essential to know your rights to protect your own work and avoid any potential violations that could cause you penalties when it comes to copyright. The best practice is to create your own work or ask for permission to use the work of others. When in doubt, err on the side of caution. Understand the tools you have at your disposal to make the process easier and have fun creating for your personal pleasure or your business.