How to Legally Use Images Online

SMS Text
How to Legally Use Images Online

I’ll admit it: I hate working with restrictions when writing and publishing blog posts.

I want to write whatever I think will be most useful or interesting to the reader. And if I come across gorgeous images that will make the post absolutely light up? I want to include those without having to think twice about where they came from.

But you know what I hate more than restrictions? Reading a letter that declares I’m being sued for copyright infringement due to my careless copying and pasting. Here in America images, like all creative works, are protected by US copyright law. Publish the wrong photo on your blog and you might have the pleasure of opening a sternly worded cease and desist letter. Or worse.

Copyright holders are not obligated to warn you before they take the matter to civil court.

And this isn’t an irrational fear. Just a few months ago major publisher Elite Daily was slapped with a lawsuit by a photojournalist for using his pictures without permission.

In this post, I’m going to teach you how to you can find and publish legally compliant images using the following methods:

1) Snapping your own photos
2) Using public domain images
3) Properly attributing creative commons works
4) Taking advantage of the concept of “Fair Use”
5) Purchasing a license for stock photos

As well as the model release, and when it’s needed.

Caveat: I’m not a lawyer, and the positions in this post are my own and based on my personal research and experience. If you want actual legal advice, I’d get a few tips from someone with an actual law degree.

Method 1: Take Your Own

Why even get images elsewhere? If you can find a relevant subject around your office, just snap your own photos. Since they’ll be completely original, your readers won’t be able to see them anywhere else, which isn’t the case with public domain or stock photos.

Obviously it would be ideal if you could use a pro-style DSLR when taking photos. But thanks to brilliant hardware engineers, you don’t need top quality equipment to bring out your inner Annie Leibovitz.

The quality of smart phone cameras has improved incredibly in the past decade. If you have an iPhone 6 or a Samsung Galaxy S6 in your pocket, you already own something on par with stand-alone point-and-shoot cameras.

Just look at this gorgeous photo of the Golden Gate Bridge taken by an iPhone:

Golden Gate Bridge

In fact, the typical barrier to getting quality images this way isn’t the equipment, it’s the technical skill of the person taking the photographs. Fortunately, if you bone up on the basics of lighting, framing, and other principles of photography you can get slick photos from your phone easily.

But wait, when you take a photo with your camera for your blog, and you work for a company, do you or your employer own the copyright? I’m glad you asked.

The photos you take as part of your job, like just all the works you produce in your job, are works made for hire. That means even though you actually did the photographing, the company you work for owns the copyright unless you have explicitly agreed to maintain the copyright of your works.

Method 2: Public Domain

Images in the public domain have been unshackled from copyright. They are owned by nobody. So you can publish them, change them, sell prints of them, or do anything you want with them.

What is or is not public domain is somewhat complicated. People can (and have) written entire books on the subject.

Public Domain Book

Me learning how to avoid lawyers

There are some instances where the creator of an image chooses to release it into the public domain. But the most common sources of copyrighted images are old images and images produced by the government.

By “old” I just mean the copyright term has expired. You can’t just claim copyright on intellectual property forever (sorry, descendants of Shakespeare.) For example, in the United States, any work published before 1923 is not protected by copyright. Photos published between 1923 and 1977 without a copyright notice are also in the public domain.

Take, for example, this stylish picture of actress Norma Shearer.

Norma Shearer

I found it through Wikimedia Commons. But since it was published in 1927 without a copyright notice or registration, it’s public domain. I can publish it or change it however I want and I’m not legally required to cite any source. (You may, however, elect to cite a source anyway if they are part of your editorial guidelines.)

However, there are special circumstances where other photos can have an expired copyright. For a complete breakdown of copyright terms in the US, check out this table from Cornell University.

By government photos, I mean photos by federal government employees as a part of their job. Photos of Yosemite taken by employees of the National Park Service or official portraits of politicians are public domain. For example, check out this photo of the Supreme Court, taken in 2010.

Supreme Court

I also found it through Wikimedia Commons, and it’s also 100% free to use since it was taken by a government employee as a part of their duties.

As you can guess, Wikimedia Commons hosts a ton of public domain images.. But if they don’t have what you’re looking for, you can look at what’s available through Wikipedia’s list of public domain image resources.

Method 3: Creative Commons

Not seeing any good public domain images you can use? Your next best free option is Creative Commons. The Creative Commons license gives photographers the ability to release their photos to the public, while still retaining some control over how they are used.

So how can you use photographs protected by the Creative Commons license?

That depends on what kind of license the creator has used. All licenses fall into two broad categories: those that allow the photos to be used for commercial use and those that forbid commercial use. Commercial use “is one primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary compensation.” So if you’re working for or manage a for-profit company, I’d steer away from Creative Commons images that are labeled “Non-Commercial.”

These licenses fall into three more categories that determine how you must attribute and modify the images.

1) Attribution

The license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work, even commercially, as long as they credit the creator for the original creation.

The attribution license gives you the most amount of freedom. You can change it as much as you like, and as long as you credit the person who made the image, you’re good.

2) Attribution-ShareAlike

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the creator’s work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit the creator and license their new creations under the identical terms.

In other words, you’re free to change the image as much as you want and publish it as long as you cite the source. But you must release the brand new image under the exact same Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons license.

3) Attribution-ShareAlike No Derivatives

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the creator.

So, just like the others, you’re allowed to use the image if you cite the person who made it. But you aren’t allowed to crop it, add pictures of poodles on top of it, or do anything else to change it. You have to use it “as is”.

How can you know which images has which license? The restrictions of the Creative Commons license are usually published right alongside the image online.

Finding Free to Use Images with Google

Let’s pretend that you’re writing a blog post that helps readers spruce up their home with the coolest Halloween decorations. (Side note: Halloween is actually almost upon us, so you better have your seasonal content for it scheduled now.)

You can’t just do a Google image search to find the images you want. That’s how you risk copyright infringement. However, there’s a neat tool within Google Images to help you quickly find all the images you can use.

When you do a search click on “Search Tools” and then “Usage rights.” You’ll see four categories. To find the images that give you the most freedom, click on “Labeled for reuse with modification.” You’ll probably find lots of images you can use.

Halloween Decorations

Find one that you like and click-through to its source so you can learn and correctly apply its license restrictions.

Using this method, I clicked on the second image listed and found an image hosted on Wikipedia. Then I scrolled down to see its licensing restrictions.

Wikipedia License

This is a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license that is cleared for commercial use. I just need to attribute it to the creator and I can use it however I like. Perfect!

Halloween Decorations

Thanks for the spooky image Anthony22 at en.wikipedia.

Now that you understand your best free options, let’s take a look at how you can use copyrighted images.

Method 4: Fair Use

So let’s say you found a perfect image for your blog post. But it’s copyrighted, and there’s no obvious way to get a license to use it. You might try to track down the copyright holder and ask for permission to use the image. But they might be unreachable or refuse. So are you out of luck? Not necessarily. If you take that work and change it so much that it essentially becomes a new work, you might be in the clear.

There’s an interesting concept in copyright law called “fair use”. It allows you use images that are protected by copyright under certain circumstances.

Judges look at four main factors when determining whether or not an image is covered by fair use:

1) The Purpose and Character of Your Use

Is the work “transformative”. That is, did it take the copyrighted work and transform it into something meaningfully different?

2) The Nature of the Copyrighted Work

If the copyrighted work displays a low-level of originality or creativity to begin with, it’s easier to make a fair use claim.

3) The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Taken

If you take just a small portion of the copyrighted work, it’s easier to make a fair use claim.

4) The Effect of the Use Upon the Potential Market

If the work makes it less likely that people will purchase the work on which it is based, it’s less likely to claim fair use.

If you want an example of fair use at work, think of gifs.

How can so many blogs get away with publishing long lists of animated gifs from television shows and movies and not have an army of lawyers from Hollywood studios pounding down the doors of their offices?

While there hasn’t yet been a major court case that specifically deals with gifs (as funny as though that would be to see), it’s likely that a court would find that gifs are legally protected. (Breathe a sigh of relief, Buzzfeed writers.)

Take, for example, this gif that uses material from the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”

A two second, low image resolution clip is a significantly different from a half-hour sitcom episode. Additionally, it’s a tiny amount taken from the copyrighted work. Plus, the existence of this gif will not harm the creators of “How I Met Your Mother” financially. If anything, it might inspire some people to seek the show out. So, it’s likely that this gif falls squarely in the domain of “fair use.”

While “Fair Use” is an option to you when publishing images, be warned that it’s one of the murkiest concepts in copyright law. As always, when in doubt consult a lawyer.

Editor Note: At SEJ are strict with photos and have erred to the side of caution. Hence why we didn’t host the above-mentioned gif directly and instead linked to it.

Method 5: Stock Photos

Now we’ve finally come to the option that requires you to pay. Stock photos are photos that creators license out to anyone who is willing to pay their licensing fee. Buying a license gives you the right to use the photo in any way prescribed by the licensing agreement. The main advantage of stock photo sites is that they contain a massive number of pictures that can help you in almost any niche. And since stock photographers are pros, the quality is typically very high.

Some of the most popular stock photos sites include Shutterstock, iStock, and Corbis Images.

Important note: You are not allowed to use stock photos in any way you please. They sometimes restrict the purpose or the context of the image you use. So always the read the licensing agreement thoroughly. For example, certain photos are used for “Editorial Use Only”. In these instances, you can use them for a publication like a newsletter or a blog, but you can’t use them for a Facebook ad or a corporate home page.

The Model Release

You’re usually free and clear if you use pictures you take yourself, public domain images, and creative commons images. But there is one important exception. If the photo you’re using has an identifiable person (that is, you can clearly see who they are) and the image is being used for an explicitly commercial purpose (like a landing page or an advertisement), you may not have the right to use their image.

In these cases, you’ll need the subject of the photograph to sign a model release. The American Society of Media Photographers has a simple one you can use. Stock photos of models usually, but not always, come with a model release.

Stay Legally Safe

There’s no doubt that navigating around copyright laws will make sourcing images a little more time-consuming. But once you become familiar with the best sources for legally compliant images, you’ll be able to find the perfect photos for your blog posts in no time.

In the process, not only will you respect the people who take the time and effort to create images, you will also decrease the odds of running into legal trouble.


Image Credits

Featured Image: Tomertu/
In-post Photo #1: Rob Bye/
In-post Photo #2: Image by Kimberly Cook-Strain. Used with permission.
In-post Photo #3: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
In-post Photo #4: Steve Petteway/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
In-post Photo #5: ©Anthony22/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0/GFDL

All screenshots by Logan Strain. Taken September 2015.

Logan Strain

Logan Strain

Logan Strain has written web content professionally since Facebook was only used by college students. You may have seen seen his content in Mashable, Forbes,... Read Full Bio
Logan Strain
Subscribe to SEJ!
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!
  • R.Rogerson

    For those of you that are a little more old-fashioned …
    you can run through all the options there, along with more refined inputs (in case you don’t know the search operators :D).

    There may be potential issues with such a search though.
    Keeping in mind I’m not a legal expert – my understanding is that there are certain situations where there are primary and secondary permissions;
    such as pictures taken within venues may need the venue owners permission.
    Similar may apply for pictures with people in them, you may need their consent.
    (This of course assumes that what I’ve read over the years is right, and that I understood it correctly.)

    Image copyright can be a PITA. I’ve had clients that have been hit due to Designers using images they shouldn’t.
    There’s also been issues when staff have left, and their creative works have caused problems (get the paperwork sorted anytime staff create anything!).
    I was called into a situation where a C&D had been received for an image that had been on a site for nearly 10 years. After much digging, it was found to have originated from a CD (remember the old ClipArt CDs you used to buy?). It turned out that it was not an original CD, and many of the images on there were stolen/bootlegged.
    There have been other such issues, as well as finding out numerous times that someone has simply grabbed an image (the idea “if it’s online it’s free” seems to be stuck with us!).

    The situation is often easily resolved – but some of the companies dealing with the occurrences (or that own the rights) go in far to heavy handed in many cases (legal threats, extortionate sums, plain old mean language etc.).
    I can understand the frustration of having work stolen and used – but not everyone is guilty. in some cases the person getting the letter had nothing to do with it. In many others it’s happened without intent/through a misunderstanding.

    • Logan Strain

      Thanks, R. Rogerson. I totally agree that figuring out if you’re compliant with images can be challenging. And it’s so sad that people who otherwise want to do professional work fall for the “if it’s online it’s free” line of thinking.

      I think that people and companies who want to protect themselves should always try to find the original source of the images they use, to ensure they aren’t violating anyone’s copyright and ensure that they are using all licenses appropriately.

  • Vishwajeet Kumar

    Excellent post Logan! I was actually wonder how to use images on my blog without facing any copyright issues and trust me your article just aware me and show me the path to use images without any issue and of course legally. Thanks a lot again for this awesome and informative post.

    • Logan Strain

      Awesome! Glad you found it useful.

  • Chandan Das

    Generally i use my own collections and free images from Google, but now i will go for “Attribution-ShareAlike No Derivatives”, hoping for best result πŸ™‚

    Anyway you have done a great job.

    • Logan Strain

      Glad you found it useful, Chandan!

  • Chris

    Logan thanks for this excellent post. I have just fired away my new blog, so now i know which ways i have to follow in order to be legal.
    I thought that using a photo straight away with an attribute below wouldn’t cause any problem or at least receive a warning first. But now I understood that we shouldn’t play with legal stuff like this, because probably there are people making money out of this.
    Thanks for heads-up again.

    • Logan Strain

      Glad I could help! Good luck with your new blog.

  • Namee

    Hey Logan Strain,

    Great Post…
    I am managing real estate website and for blog post of real estate project I am using Google -> Images-> Search tool -> Usage rights -> label for reuse.

    One of the my fav website for free images is – You can use images without any attribution….

    Thanks for sharing this post πŸ™‚

    Cheers πŸ™‚

    • Kelsey Jones

      I really like this one too! Thanks for reading SEJ Namee.

      • Namee

        SEJ is my favorite blog, I am learning lots of things from SEJ.
        Thanks For sharing awesome tips online.

  • Carmeline Fominov

    Hey Logan! This is awesome.

    You are right, images are very important for blog posts and no doubt they make the content look attractive and engaging. I also manage a couple of blogs in my leisure time, so i need pictures and images for those. Thus, i am definitely gonna consider the methods you have mentioned here. That’s very creative.

    The method no. 3 got my attention i.e properly attributed creative common works.
    One must handle the attribution requirements when using creative commons licensed material. It’s our responsibility that we credit the creator in the manner they specify.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Logan Strain

      Thanks Carmeline!

      I agree that the creative commons is fantastic and not fantastic and too few bloggers take advantage of it. As long as you adhere to the conditions of the license, you gain access to a massive number of images while still respecting the image creators.

  • Denise Garibaldi

    Thanks for all the good detail. I’m building my business website and am on a shoestring budget, so your article is very timely. The needs for my website and (later) blog images will be simple, so your overview of options is very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

    • Logan Strain

      Thanks Denise! I know the feeling. It can be difficult to create a nice-looking website and blog when your media budget is zlich. Glad I could help.

  • Lisa Redfern

    Thanks for the excellent article, Logan! I especially liked the easy-to-understand definitions of the different licenses and how they can be used. I’ll be sharing this on all my e-social real estate as I am a big believer that copyright is something that people of all ages should be familiar with.

    On my blogs and in my books, I mostly use my own and Public Domain images as they offer the highest levels of creative freedom…and because I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ve done my attribution correctly.

    Thank you for the Google Images | “Usage Rights” tip. That’s a lovely new tool to added to my resource collection!


    • Logan Strain

      Absolutely, Lisa. Understanding and adhering to copyright law opens up whole new resources and opportunities while protecting yourself at the same time. Glad you found the Google Images search tip useful.

  • Claire Greenhow

    Well, I have learnt something new today! I didn’t realise you could actually search Google for images that were copyright-free. Thank you for the heads up on that, it might save me some pennies when it comes to images.

    • Logan Strain

      Thanks Claire! I was so excited when I learned I could easily find usable images through Google.

      But just to clarify, that technique doesn’t give you images that are “copyright free.” Some of them might be, but others might be creative commons images. If an image is protected by creative commons licence, the creator still technically retains the copyright. You’re just free to use it so long as you adhere to the conditions of the license. Again, it’s imperative to check how an image is legally protected before you use it.

      Glad I could help.

      • Claire Greenhow

        Thank you for clarifying. If in doubt, I’ll add an image credit or find an alternative.

  • Milan

    I’m curious about two things with stock photos. Sevral times I had paid photos from websites like ones in your example. Then I download images with name for example “name-of-website-id12354231.jpg” and than when I searched for “name-of-website-id12354231.jpg” in Google search, as results I get few websites that use that photo.

    So my first question is, how can copywrights owner know did you pay for his image or you just downloaded it from some other website which owner paid that image?

    And the second question is, is it illegal to change the image name when you pay for the image? I’m assuming that I have the right to change image name to be more SEO friendly, but since I saw so many images online with original name I’m not sure anymore.

  • Michael Swartz

    Excellent post. Very important topic.