The Internet is filled with images; just about anything you need is guaranteed to be found somewhere online. But whose pictures are those? Does someone own the rights to the photos, or are the images online free to use? In this article we discuss the importance of licensing the photos you use, and how to find free and legal resources on the Internet.

Whose image is it?

Most images online are copyrighted and owned by the photographer that took them, or the person who created them.  When you’re looking online for photos, it is best to assume that all of the images are protected by a copyright. With the growth of the Internet and constantly changing technology, it has become even more important to license the photos you use and to read and understand the conditions of the license.  New technologies have made it even easier to search for and find images online that are being used illegally—and these searches often result in costly lawsuits.

What is a license?

A license is the right to use an image that has been copyrighted by the photographer or creator of the image.  There are many different kinds of licenses available. Each different license dictates what you can—and can’t—do with a photograph, and the terms and conditions for its use. Below are the different types of licenses you can purchase for an image. It is important to understand each one and know your options, and restrictions, when looking at purchasing a license.

  • Rights-managed (RM): There are restrictions on uses of the photo; the photographer can have limitations as to where/how long/how many people will see the image. This option is priced by how much this picture will be used. 
  • Royalty-free (RF): With this type of license the image can be used multiples times and for different reasons without being charged per use.  This option is often used for advertising campaigns because there is no fee for using the picture across multiple media channels. The charge for this option is generally based on the image size.
  • Exclusive and non-exclusive rights: These are further conditions of the license options listed above. Exclusive rights are when the copyright holder agrees not to sell the image to anyone else except the person holding the exclusive rights. 
  • One time use rights: The entity who buys this type of license can only use the image for one specific project. Often this type of license is chosen for blog posts and other projects where the image is needed for a single purpose. 

Why should you properly license images?  

There can be serious consequences for not licensing images if they have been copyrighted. The owner of the photo is able to take legal action if you use their image without a license. Getting a license provides you access to the photo and gives you legal rights to use the image, protecting you from copyright infringement lawsuits.  

Another important reason? To give the creator the credit they deserve. Many photographers and graphic artists make their living by selling their photos. By using the photo without their consent or acknowledgement you are stealing that image—and revenue—from them.  

If you do happen to use someone else’s photo without getting their permission, stop using it right away and consider licensing it retroactively.  The best way to avoid a lawsuit is to ask permission and be aware of where you got the image from. Not sure if you can use a photo? Err on the side of caution and find a graphic you can appropriately license. 

Buying rights to an image

Image repository websites make it easy to search for and license photos. Most will allow you to create an account where you can save photos you license for future use—this not only helps you keep track of your images, it helps you keep track of your licenses. Photos will vary in price depending on the size of the images; and some have special terms of use.  Review the terms carefully to be sure you understand how you can use the photos you license. The websites listed below are a few good places to start your image search:  


What images can you use for free?

If you don’t want to spend money on a license, there are several options for photos that don’t require purchasing a license: 

  • Photos you've taken yourself
  • Photos you've been granted use by the owner (must be in writing) 
  • Images ‘in the public domain’ (these photographs are not owned by anyone) 
  • Photos that are “copyright-free”
  • Images that are openly licensed

There are many resources where you can find images that can be licensed for free or images in the public domain.  Try an advanced Google search: navigate to, then search images and click ‘search tools’ located just below the search bar. Here, you can click ‘usage rights’ and determine how you want to filter the results. Select whether the picture will be used with or without modification, either for commercial or for noncommercial use. When using this option, you should still review the conditions to be sure the picture truly is in the public domain or openly licensed. 

There are other simple ways to get free pictures. Some websites ask that you credit the photographer below or near the picture; others only allow the photo to be used once. When using a photo from these websites, you should cite the author below the picture. A good way to do this is to write “image source:  Name of Source” and include a link to the original image. As always, before using any photos, be sure to read the terms and conditions.

The following are some options for places to find stock photos. Before using photos from any of these websites, however, be sure to read the terms of use, as they may vary. 

  • Pixabay
  • Flickr
  • FreeRangeStock

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is another great resource for finding images that have flexible licensing options. Creative Commons is an organization that allows you to use submitting artists’ work for free—though special licensing terms apply. Users who choose to share their work on Creative Commons select which of the licensing terms apply to their photos. Creative Commons’ goal is to make the Internet ‘more inclusive’—giving everyone the opportunity to use, and share, images online. 


Does copyright apply to other media?  

Copyrights can be applied to videos, images other than photographs (such as illustrations, logos, and other artwork), and music. Before using any digital files, be sure you have secured the appropriate licensing.  


Learning how to protect yourself from costly lawsuits is very important in any business and knowing the do’s and don’ts of licensing will save you time and money in the long run. Knowing when, why, and how to license an image is something we all must be conscious of, especially with the constant growth of technology. When in doubt, always ask the image owner or creator whether you can use the image, and obtain the proper licensing. 

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