It’s just oh-so-easy to do — especially when you are online and you see an image that would go great on your blog or on social media page.

It’s an image that will speak to your audience. It’s so clear, crisp, and bright. It really is the perfect image!

Yes, it’s just oh-so-easy to copy that image and use it online for your own purposes.

But as tempting as that might be, don’t go there. Chances are, that image is protected by a copyright, and if you use it, you’ll commit copyright infringement.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “What’s the big deal? People borrow — or steal — images off the Internet every day.”

That’s true. And no, not everyone of them is persecuted for doing so. But there’s two things to consider.

First, is the financial risk — the chance that you might be the unlucky one that a business or individual copyright lawyers go after. In some cases, we are talking about fines in the amount of millions of dollars.

Millions of dollars. Is that something you and your business can afford? Is that a risk you’d be willing to take — especially when it’s so easy to avoid?

Second, there is the ethics behind the law. Someone put hard work, energy, and creativity in the work you intend to use on your own online site. They have a right to that control that work, and further, be compensated for that work.

Place yourself in their shoes: Would you want people or businesses using your work and rerunning that work to make money for themselves?

It’s the classic case of the Golden Rule — and by doing unto others as you do unto yourself, you’ll present yourself, your business, and your brand as sincerely trustworthy.

So, when searching out images to use on line, what should you use — and not use?

A little lesson in copyright protection

Before we go to far into what images are fair game for use, let’s be clear on what copyright infringement is. According to the U. S. Copyright Office, copyright owners have the exclusive right to:

  • reproduce the work in copies.
  • distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending.
  • display the copyrighted work publicly
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

Anyone who violates any of these exclusive rights of the copyright owner listed above would be an infringer of the copyright or right of the author. Generally speaking, that means that someone who is using the copyright owner’s materials and works, without first obtaining his or her permission to do so, could be liable for infringement. 

All artists — unless they have stated or agreed to something otherwise — have ownership of and the right to control their works. Copyright protection exists from the moment a work is created and in a “fixed” form.

For more information about copyright production in the United States, you can see and download the U.S. Copyright Office’s circular, Copyright Basics, by clicking HERE.


Beyond retaining copyright, most photographers and larger corporations (such as stock agencies) also expect royalties to be paid if and when their images are used.

And, it’s important to remember that while some photos might be “royalty-free,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that those images are free of cost for you to use, nor does it mean that those images have no copyright protection.

Model releases

And then, there are the rights of the people who are actually portrayed in the image. Yes… The human subject matter of these images have rights, too. Even royalty-free images might pose a problem if humans are in the photos.

Whenever people are in an image, they must release their right to privacy. Unless you are in the news reporting business and the image was truly photojournalistic, using it without the consent of those within the image can set you up for a lawsuit.

What NOT to use

While this is a generalization, it is true that most of the images you’ll discover via a search engine should not be used by you or your business.

A mantra to remember is this: If you don’t know, don’t use. If you have no idea if the image is copyrighted and if you have no model releases for anyone in the image, simply do not use the image. Most likely, you don’t have the rights to do so. And the risk just isn’t worth it.

Then, what can be used?

Easier and more accurate to answer is this question. There are many ways you can use images without fear of committing copyright infringement:

  • Shoot your own photographs. The easiest, most assured way to avoid copyright infringement is to create the images you need yourself. This way, you not only control the rights over the images, but you can also ensure that all necessary model releases have been signed.
  • Pay for images. When you pay for images, you buy the rights to use that image. You can use stock photos from a variety of vendors (such as Usually, for the web, their use is royalty free and unlimited — but there can be restrictions (both in usage and in giving credit), so be sure to read the fine print before you buy. Any models used in stock photography typically have already submitted necessary releases to the stock agency, but again, read the fine print to make sure.
  • Use U.S. government “public domain” images. Most (although not all) content on websites owned and managed by the United States government and in the Library of Congress is in the public domain. However, definitely check before you use an image, as many times, online images on government websites are actually stock images that cannot be used by you, unless you purchase them directly from the stock agency. More appropriate might be images the government releases for use by the press, as those are always free to be used. To be sure, check the “Terms of Use” and “Copyright” sections, usually found at the bottom of the website home page, for specifics.
  • Search out memes. Many artists and websites are well aware that their images get snatched up and shared all over the Internet. Hence, the “meme” was born — images that tell a message, whether it be a bad joke or an inspiring quote. Often you’ll find a website’s name at the bottom of the meme. The creators fully intended for these memes to be used and shared, as a method of promotion. Check the website first, before running a meme, to make sure that you truly have permission to run the image. And check also that your creator’s message and that of you and your company are in synch. You don’t want to unknowingly promote anything that doesn’t fit well with your own business’s ethics or marketing, and you certainly don’t want to promote someone who is directly in competition with your products or services.
  • Use a link. Usually, there’s no problem linking to another account or website from your online page, and on social media, appropriate images of their own often appear as part of the linkage. Most businesses are happy to have their content shared elsewhere, as that’s more exposure for their brand. But make sure it’s clear that this content was not created by you.

It’s oh so easy… to avoid copyright infringement

While it might seem easy to just snag someone else’s image and use it for your own purposes on line, it’s just as “oh so easy” to use legitimate images with the proper releases and ownership. It’s not hard. And it’s far less risky.

So while others online use might be using images without much regard, you and your business accounts are going to be held to a higher, more professional level. Respect the rights of others, and rise above the rest.