Safe and Legal Travels in the Free Image Universe

Can I use this image? Should I use this image?

Chance Agrella
Aug 5, 2020 · 7 min read
Free illustration of a man with many questions floating around his head.
Illustration by Jack Moreh/Freerangestock.com

Choosing the right images to promote your business can literally be the difference between success and failure. Marketers use images to catch the eye of potential users or customers, and those consumers decide in a split second whether the product is something they want to pursue further.

So make that impression count! But do it legally.

You’re a smart marketer or business owner, so you know that choosing professional images to present your product or service is important. And you also know that you can’t just drop into Google images and grab a photo for your promotion. (Right?)

On top of that, you know there are a number of great sites where you can legally download free images that are properly licensed for your commercial or non-commercial use.

Even though there are literally millions of “free” images out there, all is not necessarily as it seems on the free image web. Some sites will hoover up Google images and represent them as “free photos” for you to use. Other less-reputable sites will scrape commercial stock sites or wallpaper sites, creating a giant morass of “free images” they claim you can use for your own purposes.

But these images are often not legal for you to use. Just visiting a site that claims to distribute “free photos” does not necessarily make it legal to use those images. Some of these sites look spammy at first glance and can be avoided. But some look pretty legit.

How can you take steps to ensure that the nifty free stock photo you found is actually something you can legally use? I’ll give some background, in the context of how we do it at Freerange Stock.

Illustration by Jack Moreh/Freerangestock.com

The first thing to look for when you finally find an image is authorship, basically “Who made this?” Somewhere on the page where you view and download the image, there should be information about who created and contributed the image.

Reputable sites will present the name of the photographer or illustrator alongside their contributions. Less reputable sites will scrape the web en masse and collect image files. But here’s the thing: it’s very difficult to maintain authorship information when content is scraped with an automated process. And maybe these sites are scraping other sites that have already lost track of, or don’t care to represent, the original authors.

Similarly, look for a link (maybe just click the name) to a portfolio of all the images contributed by that artist. What can you do from that portfolio page? For one, just take a look at the collection as a whole. Does it look like these images are created by one person? Does it seem like the images are stylistically, geographically and thematically related?

Many photographers and illustrations have a style; all the work makes sense when viewed as a whole. Portfolios full of stolen — or ahem, misattributed — images often have a very wide variety of styles and subjects. If you see a zebra wedding cake, a minimalist living room full of gothic teenagers, and a whimsical studio portrait of a pug all in the same portfolio, you might stop and ponder the legitimacy of the collection.

Do some artists have a very eclectic style? Absolutely — my own work is all over the place. But it should be possible to do some more investigating.

There are many cases where a site may display images from another website completely legally and legitimately. In those cases, the displayed author will be the site from which the photos were sourced and it should be fairly trivial to confirm the original contributor by visiting the listed source site.

If you either a) can’t find any authorship information or b) have suspicions about the legitimacy of a portfolio, do a reverse image search in Google Reverse Image Search (or just right click and choose “Search Google for Image” if you’re using Chrome) or use TinEye. Either of these tools will show you other places these free images have been found around the web.

Many photographers have portfolios in multiple places. You may find the same photographer’s images on other sites under the same name and with similar licensing, but you may also find the same images attributed to one or more other photographers on premium paid sites. Or it may be obvious that the images were not meant to be distributed as “free images” to anyone.

If you reverse image search several images from the same portfolio and you find them elsewhere in the portfolios of many different photographers, something fishy may be going on. A little additional sleuthing may reveal the true source of the image.

Does not displaying authorship information mean you can’t use the image? Not necessarily. But I think it shows a lack of respect for the content providers — a bad sign.

Sites that are mostly concerned with hoarding the greatest number of images are more prone to snare improperly licensed or outright stolen images, with little ability to detangle their collections.

Free photo of stream of many photos floating in space.
Free photo of stream of many photos floating in space.
Illustration by Jack Moreh/Freerangestock.com

If you’re reasonably comfortable so far, you should check the license and/or terms of use for the site. Every site offering images for use should have a clear license outlining the ways you can use the photos published on that site.

(It’s very important to note that whenever you download an image from a stock photography site — free or paid — you are actually licensing the image for use in your application. You don’t own the image and your use is covered by the terms of the license, even if there is no cost to acquire the image and license.)

Some sites will say “Do whatever you want!” which may be fine. Often these sites will offer images under a Public Domain CC0 License. We have some objections to the CC0 license, which we will cover in another article, but it does allow broad usage.

Some sites will say “Do whatever you want, but don’t do this list of things.” Usually those things cover redistribution and perhaps vague portrayals of the subject of images. It should be fairly easy to avoid the restrictions, and it’s worth noting that even with restrictions, the allowed uses will often be more broad than a normal, royalty-free license you purchase from a large commercial stock photo site.

And some sites will have a more comprehensive and specific license, similar to a large commercial stock seller like iStock. This type of generous, but site-specific, license is now very common on larger free stock photo site. At Freerange, we use Equalicense, which allows broad commercial use while still protecting the copyrights of our contributing photographers and illustrators. It’s a license very similar to what you would get if you license images from iStock, but the cost of the license is $0.

If you’re using images to promote your product or service, you’ll want to make sure the license doesn’t say “non-commercial use only.” Non-commercial use covers educational and editorial uses. You can use any commercial image for non-commercial use, but not vice versa.

One final thing to look for is a requirement for attribution. Some sites will allow you to use the image if you credit and/or link back to the site (often for SEO or promotional purposes). In some cases, the free version of an image can be used with attribution and the unattributed use requires a purchase. You’re basically paying for the image by providing a link to the source. Freerange has no attribution requirement — we feel it’s burdensome and a disincentive to use.

The vast majority of images on major free image websites are indeed free to use in a wide variety of perfectly legal ways. But if you end up with real doubts about the legitimate authorship and licensing of an image or an entire website, what can you do?

Here’s what we encourage our members to do at Freerange: Ask! Drop a note to the site via the contact page. We feel good about defending the legitimacy and sources of our images, and we’d be happy to set your mind at ease the best we can.

Along the same lines, we get questions all the time about usage. If you have questions about how you’d like to use images on a site, sending a note to Support outlining your use case should result in some guidance.

Any website legitimately representing the images of contributors should be able to give you information regarding the source and legal use of images hosted on the site, upon request.

It’s not possible for any site that takes outside contributions to be 100% sure of the authenticity of the submitted images — fraud and misrepresentation is common even on large, publicly traded commercial sites. But there are some simple red flags to look for when you’re bouncing around the free image web.

Freerange Stock

Discussions of free stock photos and illustrations, free image licensing and usage considerations.