A picture is worth a thousand words, and every blogger knows that images boost engagement, break up blocks of text, catch a reader’s eye, and even improve SEO. But when you’re a writer – not a photographer – how do you find the right pictures for your blog without running afoul of copyright limitations and usage rights?
The good news is there are plenty of totally free, no-strings-attached resources for beautifying your blog. You just have to know what you’re looking for.
There are three important rules when it comes to using images you didn’t take yourself.
Rule #1: Just because you found it doesn’t mean you can use it
If you use a copyrighted image on your site, you are financially liable for it. You might receive a DMCA take-down notice or even be sued for damages. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve given the artist credit or even linked back to the source: If you don’t own the rights to it, using it can get you into trouble.
What about fair use?
“Fair Use” is a legal concept that protects certain uses of copyrighted materials, such as for education and criticism, especially in a not-for-profit setting. Fair use becomes a lot harder to defend in any commercial setting. With copyright-free images available at your fingertips, there’s just no need to take a risk in hopes that fair-use doctrine will protect you instead.
Rule #2: Understand the basics of copyright and licensing
By definition, anything a person creates is automatically copyrighted by that person as soon as it’s been created, whether or not they file for an official copyright license. This means that every photo and illustration online belongs to somebody unless those rights have been offered up.
When you’re looking for free images, they’ll come from one of three sources:
Public Domain: An image in the public domain has a copyright that’s either expired or never existed, usually due to age. Copyright generally expires after 70 years if it’s not renewed by an artist or their estate. However, bear in mind that reproductions can themselves be copyrighted, so even if a painting is in the public domain, someone’s photograph of that painting might not be. Additionally, if a photo in the public domain shows an identifiable person, you might need his or her permission in order to use the image.
Royalty-Free: Royalty-free images are those that you can use without paying royalties back to the creator. In general, this works because the artist has been paid a licensing fee by the user. If you find a site offering royalty-free images for free, it’s likely because the site owner has already paid these licensing fees.
Creative Commons: This is a special type of license that allows photographers to license their images for public use with some caveats about their usage. There are different types of CC license. For example, CC0 means there are no rights reserved, and you can use them freely without giving credit. CC by 2.0 licenses allow you to use the work for free, but you must provide attribution back to the original artist. Be careful to read the specific terms of any Creative Commons image you might use in your blog to ensure you’re following the rules.
Rule #3: The rules still apply to GIFs and memes
In the social media age, it’s become commonplace to share memes and animated reaction GIFs. These images have become such a pervasive part of internet discourse that they’re like a language of their own. However, that doesn’t mean that memes and GIFs are automatically free game for anyone who wants to use them – especially if you’re in a position to profit from their use.
For the most part, the laws around GIFs and memes are still under debate, as there have been no landmark suits to establish a precedent for their use. However, the terms and conditions of sites like Giphy are written so that the end user carries the liability if a copyright suit is raised. It’s up to you whether to take the risk, but it’s probably best to play it safe and avoid using any copyrighted imagery in your commercial blogging or branded media campaigns.
So Where Do You Find Free Images Online?
Now that you know a bit more about copyright and why you should avoid using copyrighted images, you’re probably wondering where you can go for safe-to-use photos. The good news is that there are a number of options available to you, and some of the best are totally free:
- Pixabay – Public Domain and CC0 images free to use for any purpose
- Unsplash – Beautiful high-resolution photographs licensed under CC0 for free use
- Refe – This site offers free images and paid image packs that allow you to pay a small fee for greater variety and quality
- New Old Stock – An internet repository of vintage photographs from public archives that are now in the public domain
- FoodiesFeed – Powered by Getty Images, this is a food-oriented site of royalty-free photos perfect for any food blogger
- Life of Pix – A stock photo site with high-resolution photos of landscapes, people, and more, free of copyright restriction
- Gratisography – A site that focuses on quirky images, this is a great source of royalty-free photos that don’t look like basic stock photography
- MorgueFile – Don’t let the morbid name fool you; this site is one of the oldest repositories of free photos for commercial use
- Stockvault – This site features a highly searchable database of both free and premium stock photography for commercial, non-commercial, and creative commons licensing. The themed image bundles are especially useful.
- Cliply – Royalty-free animated gif clipart to use on your blog, social media, videos, and more
There are many other free photography sites to browse online, and your stock-image options expand even further if you’re willing to spend a few dollars on licensing or a monthly subscription.
A Final Word of Warning
Most stock photography sites run on user-submitted content, and the site administrators can’t always vet the images being submitted. This means that stolen or re-sold images sometimes show up in the results and you can be held liable for using them even if you downloaded them from a legitimate site.
In order to protect yourself, it’s a good idea to do a cursory search of the image to check whether it might be stolen. To do this, you can use Google’s reverse image search feature or use the site TinEye to find other places where an image has been shown. A quick glance over the results should help you determine if the image might be circulating without proper attribution.
(Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published in 2017.)
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Tiana Gibbs is an Associate Customer Content Specialist with PR Newswire moonlighting as a freelance copywriter. When not writing for the web, she can be found trying (and sometimes failing) to build an urban homestead in the Land of Enchantment.