Your Guide to Image Copyright


Mar 9, 2016

Credit: Unsplash


Visuals transform a bland block of text into a memorable piece of content.

Compelling images not only enhance the aesthetics of your post, but also improve its emotional impact, readability and retaining power.

Unfortunately, you may not have the talent to create Instagram or Pin-worthy images. But you don’t want to be left behind your competition either.

So you turn to the ‘most reliable’ database at your fingertips: the Internet – more specifically, Google.

You find a relevant and gorgeous image, upload it, label it, link it back to the original source, hit publish.

Then you sit back and relax, confident that you’ve done your due diligence.

What you receive is a hefty penalty – and other infringement charges – instead.

This has happened – and can happen to you too.

Welcome to the world of Image Copyright Infringement.

Most business owners don’t steal intentionally. They just don’t realize the repercussions of taking an image from the Internet. Educating yourself will prevent unnecessary stress, financial hits, and reputation setbacks.

The following sections will explain some basic concepts of image copyrights, and then list a few sites that provide free images.


Understanding Copyright: Internet is Not a Free-For-All:

Copyright protects “original works of authorship” in order to provide a financial and artistic incentive for creators to continue practicing their craft and enriching society as a whole.

Following are the five basic copyright protections:

  • Make copies.
  • Distribute copies.
  • Prepare derivative works.
  • Perform publicly.
  • Display publicly

Unlike patent or trademarks, you don’t need to register your work to be protected under copyright, meaning every image on the Internet is copyrighted. ( you won’t see a ‘C’ displayed on copyrighted content, like you would a ‘R’ on a trademarked product).

Copyright goes into effect the instant your work assumes a ‘tangible or consumable’ form. For instance, if you are writing a blog post, your words are ‘copyrighted’ the minute they appear on your screen – even if you never share it in public.

Copyright infringement occurs when you:

  • Use whole or part of an image without permission
  • Use beyond the scope of a license or permission
  • Adapt an image without permission
  • Ask another photographer to identically recreate the image

Not only is the party that infringed liable, anyone who authorized an infringement can also be blamed. So if your employees fail to credit a source– even unintentionally – you, as their employer, might be accountable.


Creative Commons and Fair Use

If every original work is protected by copyright, how will knowledge ever spread?

Enter Creative Commons and Fair Use.

The mission of Creative Commons (CC) – a non-profit organization – is to maximize innovation by creating a “free, public, standardized” and flexible infrastructure that  “works alongside copyright” to enable copyright owners to share their work on their terms.

It allows creators to promote their work with less fear of plagiarism, and allows you – the consumer –  to use images with less fear of penalties.

CC achieves their goals via a set of diverse copyright licenses, each one with different set of rights and restrictions. But the Attribution CC by license is the most generous of all – and the one you might use the most.

The following are the components of a CC-based attribution

  • Title: Name of the Photo File – e.g. “Blue Sky”
  • Author: The Copyright Owner
  • Source: Link to the Website Source
  • License: Which CC License is it protected under
  • Derivation: State how you have modified the picture, if need be

An example:  “Blue Sky” by XYZ is licensed under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original


Fair Use: Tricky Territory

While Creative Commons ‘authorizes’ you to legally use images, Fair Use acts is a a legal exception to the exclusive rights an owner has” , permitting the usage of copyrighted work without attribution or a license under certain scenarios.

Fair Use serves a useful purpose of educating society. Imagine if you had to obtain permission every time you shared a photocopy of your favorite article with a friend?

However, this loophole obviously frustrates copyright owners because it increases the possibility of someone misusing or mishandling their original work (especially since you don’t link to any source).

Don’t  assume that you can ‘cheat just this one time’ and get away with it. Several companies use ‘image fingerprinting techniques‘ to track duplicates. Do you want to take that risk?

Courts settle Fair Use claims on “a case-by-case” basis by evaluating each scenarios using the following criteria, as listed and described at

  • Purpose and character of the use
  • Nature of the copyrighted work
  • Amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • Effect upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

Key Takeaway: Err on the side of caution and credit the original source.


Public Domain, Royalty Free, and Rights-Managed

The three primary types of images that are usually downloaded are:

  • Public Domain: Not protected by copyright laws and belong to the public because: (a) they were willfully placed ; (b) their copyright was not renewed; (c) they had an expired license.  But while you can use a public domain image without attribution, you don’t technically own it.
  • Royalty Free: The default for stock images, this allows you to use an image as many times as you need without paying additional fees. You only have to pay a licensing fee during the purchase. Standard and Extended licenses available.
  • Rights-Managed Images: More restrictive and expensive than royalty-free licenses, right managed images come with several strings attached, such as the number of copies printed, the length of time the image will be in use, the size of image and the industry of use etc.
  • Editorial Licenses: Cannot be used in promotional, advertising, or marketing applications, but can be can used to “illustrate non-advertising materials in electronic editions”, like a blog post or magazine article.


Points to Remember Before Choosing an Image:

  • Read the license agreement of every site, along with the fine print that accompanies most images.
  • Free image sites don’t provide any guarantee or warranty about the ownership/license of their photos, unless the photographer is also the website owner. They don’t offer model or property releases either. You are taking a risk by using the picture of a stranger or a building.
  • When in doubt – attribute accordingly or pick a less risky choice.
  • Reverse check an image using a platform like Tin Eye, especially if you are not sure of the source, or just want to double-check
  • Ask the following questions:
    • Can you include your own image? If so, please do.
    • When does the image license expire?
    • Royalty or rights-managed images?
    • How are you going to use this image, and does your license support your intention?
    • How long will you use this image?
    • Are you satisfied with the image size and image quality?
    • How many times do you want to print the image?
    • Are there people, trademarks, artistic works, or buildings in the image?  If so, try to avoid these, or attribute carefully, or, best yet, pick something else
    • Does your supplier provide legal protection – and on what terms?


Sites that Offer Free Images

The diverse images found in the following sites are under the CC0 license or public domain, unless otherwise stated. Sample images are provided for the top 5 sites.

You can copy, modify and distribute the CC0 images – even for commercial purposes – without asking permission or obtaining authorization from the creator. However, you cannot use these images for unethical, immoral, or illegal purposes, and you cannot redistribute them under your name (and cannot use a few of them on a standalone basis.)  

Check the attribution needs of every image. It is always a good practice to credit, even if it is not mandatory.



The third largest photography site in the world, Unsplash sends its email subscribers 10 free images every 10 days. Can also search for images and curate your own private collections on their website.


Credit: Unsplash



The photographer is Mr. Ryan McGuire, a NY-based creative visual artist. Do drop some dimes into his ‘Coffee Jar’ though! Photographs are categorized and new ones are added weekly.


Credit: Ryan McGuire of Gratisography



Home to over 570,000 photographs, vectors and illustrations that are divided into twenty categories.  Registrations is not mandatory, but recommended.


Credit: condesign @ Pixabay


Stock Snap

Founded by Snappa, a graphic design company, to curate AND create the highest-resolution stock images on a weekly basis. Account registration required.


Credit: Photographer Luca Bravo @ StockSnap


Public Domain Archive

Unlike many public domain images, the breadth and beauty of the ones listed on this site are stunning.


Credit: Clouds Sky Mountain Blue @ Public Domain Archive


morgueFile: Don’t worry – the site has nothing to do with death or dead bodies, far from it actually! Check out the website to learn the origins of such a morbid name!

picjumbo: The brainchild of designer and photographer Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo’s images have been downloaded more than three million times. Subscribe to receive updates. Premium Membership costs only $7.50 per month.

Life of Pix: Clicked with love, picked with care, and given away for FREE. Subscribe to get notified about new images (added weekly)

SplitShire: Featuring photos by Daniel Nanescu, photographer and graphic designed extraordinaire. For just $9.60, Mr. Nanescu also offers a ‘Zip Pack’ of almost all the images.

Free Range Stock: New images are added every day. Free account registration required. Does not demand an attribution, but recommend including one in their preferred format anyway

Pick Up Image:  A haven for nature photography enthusiasts. Sign up for a FREE account to download images.

Magdeline: New hand-picked, artistic photographs are uploaded every day. Attribution required.

Superfamous: Hosts the images of Mr. Folkert Gorter, a Dutch interaction designer. Available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license – must attribute.

RGB Stock Photos: Over 100,000 images that can be accessed by creating a FREE account using Yahoo, Google, Hotmail, Facebook, or RGB Stock’s own registration page. Unclear whether attribution is mandatory, but credit source anyway.

Travel Coffee Book: Steal-your-breath-away images from global travel adventures. Can download ALL images in one swoop.


Browse at Leisure:

The longer you search, the more options you will find. Feel free to explore these on your own:


Search Engines for free Images:

Visiting each website to find a suitable photo can get tedious. The following websites act as search engines for free creative commons, and/or  public domain, and/or royalty-free images from across the web. Double-check the license for each photograph.


Lend Pizzazz To Your Site

With so many free options to choose from, you too can enjoy all the benefits of a beautiful image on your website – and in your blog posts – without paying a hefty price to premium stock sites.

Just remember to give credit where it’s due. Nobody likes their work stolen or misrepresented – even unintentionally.