Finding free images on the web: Get your rights right, right?

Fair use of images is a topic that comes up again and again when we're talking about content on the web.

It's in everyone's interests to get it right - from the designers and photographers who should be paid for their work, to clients who need their websites and social media channels to fully comply with copyright law.

People often think that if they've found the image on Google, it's free to use. No. It's a little more complicated than that...

So which images are free to use on the web?

Look out for the following terms:

Public domain: Free from restrictions and fine for you to use on your site.

Creative Commons: Free to use but you may have to comply with certain restrictions. The owner may state that the image can't be used for commercial purposes or that you can't modify the image in any way. Always check the licence before using an image under Creative Commons.

Royalty free: Copyrighted material that can be purchased and used without limit. In order to gain a licence to use a royalty free image you will need to buy one from image agencies like ShutterstockGetty Images and iStock (above).

If you know you're going to need a high volume of images you should take out a subscription and build this into your budget.

Once you're signed up to one of these image libraries they may send you images for free every so often, by way of a reminder of all the amazing stuff they have available!

Keep an eye out for press or media kits on official websites, as these may contain high-resolution images you can use freely in your blog post, project or campaign.

Materials intended for publicity purposes are usually fine too, so if you're reviewing a film it's perfectly reasonable for you to be able to use an image of the official poster to accompany the piece.

Taking an image from a news site of the leading lady on the red carpet wouldn't be, as the site owner will have paid for that image. And you haven't!

Sites giving away free images

morgueFile: High resolution stock photos for commercial and personal use. They are free to use but aren't public domain so do check the rules specified by morgueFile. Always give the image owner full credit and a link.

Flickr: Some images on Flickr are licensed under Creative Commons or are in the public domain. Always check an image's copyright information before taking it from Flickr as many aren't free, and again, give credit.

Take a look at the British Library Flickr account; they recently made available millions of images which are all free to use.

Stock.Xchange: A stock photo community which supplies images that are freely available for commercial and personal use.

Google Advanced Image Search (above) now has an option to filter by usage rights, so you can see which images are free to use for commercial purposes.

Which images can't you use for free?

Here are some examples of what you can't do:

  • Don't assume that if it appears in Google image search then it's free to use! Use the advanced search option mentioned above.
  • Don't take images from libraries such as Getty Images, Shutterstock and iStock without paying. They come with a watermark, so if you try to use the image without paying you'll be found out pretty quickly!
  • Don't use images that appear in the websites for newspapers or magazines. 

    However, if they have created a gallery and there is an option to embed it in your site that's fine, as they are the ones hosting the images.

Why should I pay for images that I can take from other websites?

The website owners will have paid or gained the rights to use that image. If they haven’t they are breaking the law. Taking that image is stealing from the photographer, illustrator, or designer who owns it. 

“If you value an image then that image has a value, and that’s a real cash value,” says Paul Clarke from Paul Clarke Photography, (right).

“If you don’t value the image then why would you want to be using it?”

What happens if I use an image on the web without permission?

If you use an image on your website it’s likely that the owner will see it, particularly if you’re a high-traffic site. 

They may ask you to remove it unless they receive a fee.

“In every case I simply asses the value I and the image user get from the image and base my approach on that. Almost always this result in a fair invoice being sent,” Paul told us.

“The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has a good guide to rates. If the client is difficult, evasive or has cropped obvious watermarks then the rates get jacked up. I think that’s fair enough.”

If you don't act quickly or you handle the situation badly in some way, you risk real damage to your reputation. You may find the owner of the image lets off steam on their blog or complains loudly on social media.

They image owner can also file for copyright infringement. If you are found guilty the consequences may be severe. Violating an image’s copyright protection could lead to:

  • Monetary damages
  • Lawsuits
  • Legals fees
  • Criminal charges

The golden rule is to always check an image’s protection before using it. You can be held responsible for infringement whether you knowingly committed the act or not.

Further information about protecting your intellectual property and using creative materials on the web can be found on the Own-it website.