Some Common Legal Misunderstandings About Image Usage

The Web is visual. You have no option. Your website must use images. Colors and images create mood and emotion and both are important in buying decisions. But, where do you find good content images? Images that will not end up costing you dearly legally are really hard to find.

Every image you find online belongs to someone. A photographer has invested time, energy and expense to capture that perfect image, so they are entitled to be paid for its use. Sometimes people are willing to let you use their photos for free under certain conditions. You need to ask before you use any picture.

Below are some common misunderstandings about image use:

No image creative vector illustrations
Image Source: Image Creative via Shutterstock.

Images You Find Online

Every image belongs to someone. You can NEVER just take an image from another website, even if you link back. Sometimes the copyright owner will take you to court and sue you for thousands of dollars for using their image without written permission. There are many cases where this has happened.

You can never copy a photo you find on another website. That is theft. If you link back it is theft. If you use it in a meme or infographic it is theft. You must research any photo you use very carefully. That is the only way to stay out of court.

Public Domain Images

Public domain rules are anything but simple. An image might be in the public domain in one country but copyright in another. Some 60 year old images are automatically in the public domain, others are not.

You can find collections of public domain images but all carry health warnings. You cannot use even public domain images that contain recognizable photos of people or private property, including logos without signed releases from the model, property or logo owner.

Are Public Domain Images Safe to Use?

They are safer than most. They have the added advantage that you are not required to link back to the source. They are not 100% guaranteed safe though.

US Government Images

People often quote US government photos as being totally safe but the screenshot above shows they are not.

Are US Government Images Safe to Use?

Many are safe, but you still need to check. You also need to check for faces, logos and property rights issues in every photo.

Creative Commons

There are different creative commons licenses. You need to understand the limitations of each one. All involve linking back to the source. Some allow you to use the image commercially. (Use on a blog counts as commercial use.)

creative commons licenses
Screenshot Source

Photos that are licensed with a creative commons license rarely have model releases or property releases. Anyone who sees thin your photo can sue you in the courts for using their image without permission. The same is true if you have a picture of someone’s house or car. You need a signed release by the owner of any property depicted in your photo.

Are Creative Commons Images Safe to Use?

Maybe. You still need to check for earlier publication of the photo to make sure someone has not taken a copyright image and re-posted it as creative commons. You can also only use images that are licensed for commercial use, even if it is just to illustrate a blog post.


Flickr is the single most widely-used source of website images. Anyone can post any image on Flickr and re-label copyright material as creative commons. Yes, it is illegal, but the copyright owner is going to come after YOU, not the person who re-labelled his copyrighted photo.

Even big players like the BBC have been caught using Flickr images without permission.

Are Flickr Images Safe to Use?

Probably if you hotlink the image rather than hosting it on your own server, but it is still best to take legal advice before doing so. Most Flickr images have no model releases or property releases, so using them opens you up to legal concerns because you cannot just use someone’s image without permission.


Every Tom, Dick and Harriet post pictures on Pinterest. These people do not check copyright or usage permissions. If you just take an image you find on Pinterest it is very dangerous.

Are Pinterest Images Safe to Use?

They might be, but you need to check the image source and history to be sure. Pinterest images are highly unlikely to have model or property releases, so using them is never going to be trouble-free.

Free Stock Photos

creative commons licenses

The better website building programs, like IM Creator, include a section with free to use photos called IM Free, but there are still rules you have to follow. You can also use Pixabay although their database isn’t as rich as the aforementioned IM Free.

Sources of Genuinely Free Images

Free Stock Photo Sites

Free stock photo sites have some images available for free. You usually have to use an attribution link back to the site andd you still have to be careful to check for model and property releases.

Your Camera

No image creative vector illustrations
Image Source: Image Creative via Shutterstock.

You might think your own personal pictures are safe to use, but you still need property and model releases. Taking photos of the Eiffel Tower and using them can land you in hot water, because the owners of the Eiffel Tower have property rights and you need their permission to use an image of their property.

Even a street scene that includes people’s faces and cars can lead to trouble.

If you intend to take your own photos then you are best avoiding technology, faces and famous buildings

Your Thoughts?

Are you happy to take the risk of being caught? Where do you find images and what checks do you make? Please share your thoughts using the comments box below.


  • schm0

    It is important to note that Fair Use covers a lot of ground when it comes to copyrighted material, as well. I was hoping this article would touch on what is and isn’t considered acceptable in that regard.

  • Jamie Teasdale

    Very timely article, Daniel! Thank you for your insight. Getty Images is on many people’s lists right now. Certainly they’re on mine.

  • lightjump

    This is great information. It can certainly be a challenge to convince stakeholders at a large organization of the need to control this sort of use for those individuals who have the ability to post content online on behalf of the organization. In some cases, copyright has legitimately been infringed, and in at least one case in particular, one of our organization’s partners was required to pay Getty Images a fine for this sort of illegal use of an image. The image had already been removed from the site before Getty Images sent them a letter demanding the payment of the fine, but they still had to pay anyway. Thank you again for the detailed clarification of the various sorts of issues raised by using images online.

  • Harry Potter

    Image hosting sites like Imgur seem to have lots of pictures that are not uploaded by the copyright holder. How are they able to do this? Do their terms and conditions preclude them from legal action since they put the onus on the uploader to make sure that the image(s) is permissible by the copyright holder?

    And what about using images from these image hosting sites? Oftentimes, the uploader is anonymous and the image has been altered so many times that finding the original is cumbersome if not impossible. In that case–when the copyright holder is undetermined–what are the rules/guidelines for using these types of images?

  • Thanks for writing about this.

    A friend’s business is being sued by a photographer for simply sharing a couple of his images on Facebook (from posts by a “free image” Facebook Page), retweeting images someone else posted as their own, and repinning images from this same “free image” organization. She never uploaded any of the photos. Some lawyers have claimed that this photographer, and others, are submitting their own images to these free image sites using a fake name, then waiting a while to see if their images got shared. I tell my clients not to use images unless they get permission from the person who actually took the photo. Photos taken by the business are more engaging anyway and are the safest to use.

  • sandeep sarma

    Thanks. That was quite useful. I shall be careful next time. I just want your suggestion on this – What if we include images from some website without their consent and then include a text near the image: “courtesy: that-website-link”. Is it legal then?

  • Spielmadchen

    I also use MorgueFiles for free images and I contribute there as well
    to help people out. They are still building the website and, of
    course, not all of the images are awesome, but they are great for a

  • Winston Bracken