Photos: 11 great tools to find and use images without copyright infringement

Updated February 26, 2018

Every blogger knows that images are essential both to better storytelling and attracting an audience, but not every blogger creates their own photographs. This article is intended to help you find and use good images without infringing on another person’s creative property (i.e., stealing.)

Photographers are no different from bloggers, authors, software engineers or anyone else whose living depends on the intellectual property they create. Many photographers are highly compensated for their work and won’t hesitate to take action if they discover that one of their images was purloined, as they should. Receiving a demand letter (or an invoice!) from an aggrieved copyright owner is something to avoid.

Let’s start with a couple of basic rules:

  1. Giving credit does not by itself make using someone’s images ok or legal.
  2. Many photographers make obtaining permission easy.
  3. There are lots of ways to get images that are freely available.
  4. Many photographers are happy to give permission (sometimes even for free) if you simply ask first.

For a good discussion about using other people’s content generally, check out this blog post by attorney Ruth Carter. For images, Carter says she relies on images that are protected under a Creative Commons license to modify and commercialize the original.

What is copying? Copying is taking someone else’s image, either by downloading their file or taking a screenshot or duplicating their image in any way and publishing it yourself on a website that you control or anywhere else. If you upload a file, you are publishing — and it doesn’t matter whether it is on a corporate website, a blog, Facebook or any other social media platform.

What is not copying? If you are not touching the image file and simply providing a link that pulls the image from someone else’s website, you are not copying the image. Many media outlets provide embedding code so that you can display one of their images on your website in the exact manner that they allow. If you use a provided embed code without modification, you are linking to the copyright holder’s website or server and doing so with permission. (There is a case pending in federal court in New York that will determine whether embedding an image without explicit permission to do so may infringe on copyright. Watch this space.)

What about retweets or other shared social media posts? As with most legal questions, it depends. Generally, if you simply retweet or share someone else’s post without adding anything to the post or modifying the other person’s work, you are in relatively safe territory. However, if the original post infringed someone’s copyright or privacy or has any other legal issues, you certainly could be dragged into litigation over it.

For example, in some states, anyone can take a photograph of people on the street, but those images cannot be legally published without the permission of the people in the image. If one those people sue, they could reasonably go after anyone who shared the image. This is why it is important to be careful about what you retweet, and disclaimers do not shield you at all.

How do I get permission? Professional sites usually have instructions for requesting or purchasing permission (a “license” to use an image.) If you find an image on someone’s personal website that you want to use, just send an email to the owner describing who you are and what you want to do with the image. I have done this many times and have never been turned down. Just make sure you find out exactly how the copyright owner wants to be acknowledged, including whether they want a link back to their site.

All Rights Reserved

If you find an image that you like, check the copyright notice. This is sometimes in the caption, although occasionally you have to hunt around on a website for it. If it says “All rights reserved,” then you must obtain permission before using it.

The phrase “all rights reserved” is not mandatory. Unless content owners expressly give permission, you should presume that they are keeping all use rights. That means you must contact the owner and negotiate permission if you want to use their material. Sometimes a quick email is all it takes. With companies, there may be rights management departments, forms to fill out, and licensing fees based on the intended use. For most bloggers, this is more trouble than it is worth.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a framework for copyright protection that includes clear information on what permissions are available. Many people are happy to freely share their content for certain kinds of use, so there are a ton of images with a Creative Commons license. Just make sure that you read carefully. There are six different categories. Only three of those categories allow commercial use. All six require attribution. The differences primarily have to do with commerical or non-commercial use and whether you can alter the content or only use it exactly as the originator published it. More information about each of the Creative Commons licenses is available on the Creative Commons website.

Image Search Tools

Here are some sources for images that can be used by bloggers and others without going through a lot of hoops for a license:

  1. Creative Commons has a portal to the search features on about a dozen sites that have images or other content available for reuse. You can select whether you want to search for content that can be used commercially or modified.
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=100769

2. Wikimedia Commons is a repository for a vast array of images from individuals, organizations, libraries, government and other sources that are generally available for republishing. Many of the images are in the public domain, which means you can use them as you like, no restrictions. The typewriter image here was contributed by an individual who chose not to retain copyright.

Consistent with the sharing culture of Wikimedia (and Wikipedia,) the site prompts you to include a credit line and makes it easy. Just click on the bar that says “You can attribute the author” to get a ready-to-use plain text or HTML credit line.

3. Flickr has long been a favorite site for photo sharing by serious amateurs and some professionals, in part because of its built-in rights management. If you search for an image, the copyright status is at the top of the download screen. Flickr also allows you to search by license type.

The options include the variations of Creative Commons licenses, no restrictions, and “U.S. Government works.” (See below for more on this last category.)

xx

4. Pixabay is a search site for images that are in the public domain. It also has an especially good explanation of what that means, and why “public domain” does not necessarily mean unfettered use.

5. Wylio is a service that streamlines the process to find and use images from Flickr. Basic search is free, but for $3 a month, users can search and find images via Wylio.com and in one step, obtain cut-and-paste embed code for Wordpress or other blogs. For non-Wordpress blogs, the image download button has the reminder: “Don’t forget to add the credits somewhere,” which is mandatory under Creative Commons licenses. It also provides a credit line for immediate use.

6. Similar to Flickr, Google Image Search has an option to search images by license type. However, because Google search pulls from all websites, you must verify the copyright or permissions on the image’s original page to be sure.

Two healthy eaglets residing in the nest in a tree in the U.S. National Arboretum. Photo (C) American Eagle Foundation / www.eagles.org (Screenshot captured online by Carol Ceasar)

7. PRNewswire is another source for images that typically are restricted but permission is freely granted to bloggers or other journalists using the pictures as part of a relevant story. The cute baby eagle picture is one example.

U.S. Government Works

The last category on the Flickr advanced license search is one gateway to a vast resource that many bloggers overlook: By definition, nearly all images produced by the federal government are available for public use without restriction. This means that spectacular science images from NASA or the National Institutes of Health are among the assets that are free for the taking. (The rule is not so simple for state or other government units, but these can be great sources, too.)

In addition to images that you can find on Flickr or Google, here are direct links to a few federal sources for images:

8. Health and science: NIH Image Bank and the Public Health Image Library (CDC)

9. Space, physics, astronomy, geology: NASA

10. Military and more: Department of Defense

11. Outdoors: Bureau of Land Management

Other tools?

If you have other ways to find images for your blog, please share in the comments.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended as legal advice. Consult your own attorney about any specific questions. I am licensed to practice in Maryland.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.