Can I use this image I found online? You may not realize that you’ve been breaking copyright law with the photos you find on Google. Here are four ways to find great pictures, images, and graphics legally.
Copyright and the internet
Every photo on the internet is automatically copyrighted. It doesn’t matter if there’s a © icon or a watermark or not. Only the creator of the image has permission to display it, change it, distribute it, or reproduce it. You may be able to download or copy an image, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to use it. This applies to photographs, graphics, background designs, clip art, and icons you find online.
But don’t despair! You can find great images for your blog, website, presentation, brochure, or Facebook event without infringing on someone’s copyright. Here are four ways to be sure you can use that image.
1. Make your own graphics
Creating your own graphics and taking your own photos is the surest way to avoid copyright issues. If the project is big enough, it’s worth hiring a graphic designer to create your icons, infographics, and clever images, or having a professional photographer take your pictures. This is also a great way to keep your visuals aligned with your brand in color and style. Make your own and never wonder if you can use the images.
Legal photos and images:
- a photo you took of cookies you baked to post with a recipe
- a graphic you made as a background image for a website
- a chart you made in Excel showing last quarter’s data
Illegal photos and images:
- a graphic you made that’s an exact copy of someone else’s work
- work you created while under an exclusive contract
2. Ask for permission
There’s an easy way to know if you can use a photo, graphic, or clip art you found online. Ask yourself one question: Do I have explicit permission to use this? If you don’t, you shouldn’t use the image. It’s not enough to just give attribution or link back to the source site. Unlike citing a source for a research paper, artists (anyone who creates an image) have sole permission to decide where and how their work appears.
If you see something you love online, just ask for permission to use it. Most people will be flattered that you liked their work enough to share it. Send a quick email titled Can I use this image? Ask if the recipient holds the copyright to the work and if they’d let you use it in your specific context. Always offer to attribute and link back to the creator. If they say no or never reply, move on and find something else.
Legal photos and images:
- an image you received written permission to use
Illegal photos and images:
- an image you didn’t ask to use
- an image someone told you not to use
- an image whose owner never replied to your email
3. Find free stock photos
Stock photos get a bad rap. The phrase brings to mind badly staged pictures of smiling business folk or frazzled women with headaches. But there are millions of stock photos available online, many of which are well-produced and useful.
Sometimes free stock photos are referred to as public domain. Public domain describes works whose creators have allowed all forms of reuse or works no longer protected by copyright law. Creative Commons is an organization encouraging the free public use of images. Images with a Creative Commons license range from full public domain to “some rights reserved.” When using any form of free stock, be sure to check whether the image requires attribution or allows modification.
Free stock photo sites:
4. Pay for licensed images
Licensed images or paid stock photos are copyrighted photos that can be used for a fee. Licensing details vary by site, so be sure to read them carefully. Some allow any amount of reuse or modification. Some have specific rules in the license agreement. iStock, for example, requires images to be used within 30 days of acquisition. Certain licenses are good for a one-time use only while others are unlimited.
It may not be worth the investment to add paid stock images to your blog posts. But on brand collateral like brochures or websites, paid may be the way to go. If you use stock images regularly, you can subscribe to a site for a monthly fee instead of paying per image. Icons, clip art, vector graphics, and hi-res photos are all available.
Paid stock photo sites:
When you can break the rules
Copyright law allows for fair use of copyrighted images. These are special circumstances when you can use an image that would otherwise be off-limits. If you’re using the image for nonprofit/educational purposes, commenting on or critiquing the work, or reporting the news, you can use a copyrighted image. Even under fair use, you should never make money off someone else’s work or diminish the value of their work through your use.
Can I use this image I found on Google?
Google is not intended to provide images for reuse or reproduction. Again, just because you can download them doesn’t mean you’re allowed to use them. If you want to use Google to source images, click the Tools button, choose Usage rights, and select an appropriate option. Even then, double check the licensing requirements on the photos you find.
Legal fair use of images:
- an art teacher showing the class a famous photo
- a blogger critiquing movie poster designs
- including the cover art of a recommended book in a presentation
Illegal use of images:
- Using an image you found on Google in a brochure
- Using a landscape shot from Flickr as a background on a website
- Printing an image to use as decoration in your office
So, can I use this image?
The answer is yes if…
- you made the graphic yourself
- you hired someone to make the image for you
- you received written permission from the copyright holder
- it’s a public domain image
- your situation meets fair use requirements