3 things you should know about using free images you find online

Finding images online can be a bit like shopping at an end-of-season sale. Sure, there are some bargains to be found, but the quality of what’s on offer can vary massively. You can’t find something in your size so you end up with what’s available, not what shows off your best features.

Before you use free images you’ve found online, there are three important things you and your team should know:


1) There’s no such thing as international copyright.

Copyright gives the the creator of an original work the right to use and distribute their work. The intention of copyright is to help ensure that an individual receives fair compensation for their intellectual property.

However, there’s no such thing as international copyright.

The idea of copyright was developed well before the internet. And because getting every country on the planet to agree is like asking the Kardashian family not to argue in the presence of television cameras, copyright law doesn’t span international borders.   

But it is generally accepted that copyright comes into effect at the moment of creation. This means a work is protected by copyright whether or not you see the “©” symbol.

Crucially though, the legal protections copyright offers changes from country to country. This means that you may have the right to reproduce someone’s work on your website in one country, but not in another.



2) Giving credit to the owner or original author doesn’t make your use legal.

Many people believe that simply giving public credit to the source of the work they have used is enough to make it legal. This is incorrect; even adding a link back to the website you found the work on won’t save you. You’ll still be violating copyright in most countries. You can’t use someone’s work without first getting their permission.

Copyright law usually makes a distinction between personal use (say publishing a photo on your personal blog) and commercial use (for example if a company uses someone’s design in a social media post or promoting their brand on Instagram). If the image will be used to help make money or promote something, you first need permission.

3) It’s OK, I’m covered by the concept of fair usage.

Sorry, wrong again unfortunately. Fair use is one of the most complex parts of copyright law as it covers a pretty grey area. It’s an attempt to balance the rights of the creator with the need for public interest around copyrighted material.

  • Fair use means that in certain circumstances copyright won’t apply, so the creator can’t demand compensation
  • The use shouldn’t directly interfere with the owner’s rights or their ability to use their work as they choose

  • A typical example would be an online review of a new book, where parts of the text and images/photos from the book cover might be reproduced to give readers of the review relevant context. Because the review doesn’t substitute the book as a complete work, using the copyrighted material doesn’t affect the original owner’s rights. It’s in the public interest to have parts of the book available for review  

Just because technology has given us new ways of doing things, that doesn’t mean the old rules don’t still apply. Use digital technology to be inspired. Use it to make your presentations, social media or websites pop with colour and pizazz. Just make sure you have permission first.


Want to learn more about copyright? Take a look at our super simple guide to copyright and imagesAnd if you want to make sure nobody in your company use illegal images, you might want to think about finding the right tool for you to organize your company's images.



 Want access to free images with no strings attached? Check out Pickit. 


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