A Blogger’s Guide to Free and Legal Images

Bloggers rarely get images right. Those who are weary of copyright infringement often are unsure which, if any, images they can use. There are others who either are unaware of the possibility of copyright infringement or think that any un-watermarked image will do. I want to help demystify this process.

First a big disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. This post is for informational purposes. Copyright issues are notoriously tricky, especially when it comes to fair use. When in doubt, consult a lawyer with expertise in the area. I am not a lawyer nor do I have or purport to have legal training in this or any area.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have helpful information for you. When I was a novice blogger, this stuff was confusing and freaked me out. I am happy to report that this can become a fairly painless, worry-free process once you get the hang of it.

Lesson #1 through infinity: Google image search is not your friend for finding images for your blog. You do not have the right to use most of the images on the Internet and Google image search is not made for the purpose of finding royalty-free, non-copyrighted images. There are now filters for these sorts of images, but in my experience they are very unreliable and I’d avoid them for peace of mind. If the owner of the rights for the image (ie, the creator) hasn’t expressly granted you the right to use it, you probably can’t.

Be careful out there!

If you think this isn’t a big deal, bear in mind that countless bloggers have been sued by Getty Images for thousands of dollars for using images that are licensed by Getty. By and large, these people had no idea, but that isn’t enough excuse. Photographers and graphic designers make a living by selling their images and ripping them off hurts everyone.

With that said, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Images that you can use fall into two broad categories:

  1. Images that are licensed specifically to encourage free and broad use.
  2. Images that fall under fair use.

Let’s start with the first kind. By and large, we’re talking about two sub-types of images within this category:

  • Creative Commons licensed images
  • Public domain images

Public domain images lack a copyright owner. This can happen because the image is sufficiently old, the copyright was intentionally forfeited for this purpose, or copyright was inapplicable. Read for more details on Wikipedia. Images in the public domain do not require attribution (credit) and you need not ask anyone permission. You can use these images for any purpose, whether commercial in nature or for the purpose of changing the original drastically for artistic or other purposes.

Here are two great places to find public domain images:

Creative Commons images

You’ll have a far better time finding Creative Commons licensed images. Creative Commons is a nonprofit group that has a mission of making it easy to share and reuse creative works of all kinds. The genius of Creative Commons licensure is that they create licenses that give the creator clear ownership of the material while allowing others to use the work within limits defined by the creator.

As a blogger, you can take advantage of these licenses since they’re practically designed for you. There are three aspects of an image that will be regulated by a Creative Commons license:

  1. Attribution – most, but not all, CC-licensed images require that you credit the creator and link back to them/the license.
  2. Remixing and modifying – some CC licenses permit others to create derivative works
  3. Commercial use – many, but not all, CC-licensed images can be used by commercial entities

The meaning of “commercial use” is legally murky, so I always opt for images that are permitted for commercial use since each site I write for runs ads. I usually don’t need to modify images beyond cropping, so I don’t always look for the right to remix.

There are many places to find CC-licensed legal images. You often will need to enter an advanced search to filter these. Make sure to look over whatever information is supplied along with the image to see if there are any obvious signs that the uploader is not the creator and/or does not have the right to license the images that way. If a Flickr user uploaded a photo with a Getty watermark and labeled it with a CC license, you know there’s a mistake and you can’t use it.

Here are some sites that offer easy access to CC and similarly licensed legal images for free (remember, use search filters when appropriate and always double-check before using!). They are listed in the order that I consult them when I need images:

I rarely need something outside of Flickr or Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons comes in most handy when talking about public or historical figures or entities.


When providing attribution, there is some flexibility. The key components are naming the creator of the image and making the specific license somehow accessible. My style, when using Flickr, is to name the author, put the word Flickr in parentheses, and hotlink the name back to that photo’s page or the creator’s Photostream. Sometimes the creator will leave specific instructions, in which case I try my best to comply (usually regarding the name they ought to be called and/or where the link should go).

Alternately, you can simply put the type of the license rather than linking, but this is far short of ideal. Attribution, according to the licenses, must be done in a “reasonable” way. That means, for example, you don’t have to ruin whatever you’re working on by stuffing it with extra-long attributions. A link to the photo’s page on websites like Flickr along with the creator’s name is usually enough, since the pertinent licensing information can be found there.

If you have made changes to the photo like cropping, you should indicate that in a reasonable way, particularly if it has changed the image significantly. If you have made other significant changes, like changing to black and white or even remixing into a completely different work, you must briefly and reasonably explain what change was made. You can only do these changes to images that are licensed with the permission to “remix” or “adapt.”

It is of utmost importance that you double and triple check that the image you’re using has the license that you think it does.

For more tips on attribution, check out Creative Commons’s FAQ and this helpful infographic.

Fair use

Fair use is a term that, across national borders, refers to common exceptions to copyright. I am only going to focus on the American version of this as it is the only one of which I have a semblance of knowledge.

There are four considerations that courts take into account when deciding whether the use of a copyrighted work falls under fair use. Here’s the pertinent section of American legal opinion:

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The first thing you should think about is whether your use of an image is for the purpose of “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” Also bear in mind that you do not have to meet all four of these guidelines and, at the same time, meeting only one does not necessarily make up for the violation of another.

So if you’re talking about recent developments that relate to Google, you can use their official logo to make it clearer who you are talking about. If you’re criticizing Google’s policies, again that’s okay.

If you’re talking _about an image _in such a way that it would qualify as criticism, comment, or news reporting, you should be okay. The key here is making it clear who the content owner/creator is and making the purpose of your use clear. If a reader might reasonably infer that the image is one that you created/is of a copyrighted thing that you own, you’re probably violating copyright.

Thinking about the Google example, I can’t make posts that make it appear as if _I _am Google, am speaking on behalf of them, or am otherwise endorsed by them.

Another thing to think of in terms of company logos and product images is that while these are usually fair game for commentary, reviews, news reporting, etc., it is important to make sure that the image of these things come from the company or is otherwise free to use by its license (like a Creative Commons license).

For instance, someone might take a picture of Google’s logo on the side of their headquarters. I can’t use that image _unless _I am talking about that picture in particular rather than about Google.

Many companies will have a section of their website for press or media. Look for media kits in these sections or by doing a site search. You are usually going to be okay if you save an image of their logo from other sections of their site as well. If in doubt, there is usually a press contact to ask questions or for materials.

Another example is movie screen captures or posters; in the case of stills, how many? Did you take them yourself? Are they useful/pertinent for your blog post? Is the movie poster at a really high resolution and, if so, was that necessary?

To summarize

While there is a bit to know up front, this can become second-nature. Within your niche, it’ll become obvious what the industry standard practices are. When writing about tech, I know that using product images for a product review is appropriate. Using a company logo supplied by a company is fine for news reporting or commentary. I don’t have to know the ins and outs of every facet of copyright law to get by – the key is knowing what you need to know.

If you want just a vaguely pertinent image, using Creative Commons licensed images is usually the best course of action. Sometimes, even specific subject matter can be found this way. For instance, if I want to talk about a specific species of plant, I can probably find a CC-licensed image of it for demonstration purposes.

For company logos, the company will usually supply those in some way, shape, or form. Product images as well. Be careful not to take product images that were taken by a third party, like the retailer or another reviewer.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments. But please, remember, I’m not a lawyer. I’m a blogger. Verify _everything _yourself when in doubt.

Featured image by Jacob Bøtter (Flickr)


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