Finding Images You Can Use Without Copyright Problems

Freelancers who work as writers, marketers, and in other creative fields often need to use images, designs, and other visual elements in addition to words. If you are not a photographer or a designer, and if you were not hired to provide original photographs or designs, you may want to search the internet for photographs and other works. I have previously written about copyright law, public domain, and public copyright licenses. Here are some pointers on finding images online.

(I will reiterate my rule that a freelancer should always assume everything they find online is copyrighted unless they can establish otherwise. When in doubt, either contact the photographer or designer, or find a different image.)

Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

I have a reason for including this lovely picture, which will be clear if you read on…

License Fees versus Royalties

The idea here is to help you find images you can use for free, but first, a quick note on licensing fees is in order.

The right to use someone else’s copyrighted work is usually known as a “license.” There are two types of costs associated with a license:

  • License fee: This is a fee that you pay upfront for a license to use a copyrighted work. Licenses may impose various restrictions on the use of the work.
  • Royalties: If a license includes royalties, the copyright owner is entitled to a percentage of the the licensee’s income derived from their use of the licensed work.

Many websites offer “royalty-free” images, but that is not the same as saying that they are free to use. You may still be required to pay a one-time license fee.

Stock Photo Websites

Perhaps the easiest way to find images you can use in a blog post, on a website, or in other works is through one of the many stock photo sites. If you have a specific type of stock photo in mind, you can probably find it on this sort of website, but you will have to pay a license fee.

Sites like Shutterstock, iStockphoto, and Image Source maintain enormous databases of royalty-free stock photos. Getty Images, one of the largest and most well-known stock photo agencies, also provides royalty-free (but not free) images.

Public Domain Images

Some sites maintain databases of images that are in the public domain, meaning that they are not subject to copyright protection and are free to use. Other restrictions may apply, however, especially if the image depicts one or more recognizable people.

  • Pixabay has over 400,000 public domain photographs and other images available to download and use.
  • Openclipart has more than 72,000 clip art designs that are in the public domain.

Free Licensed Images

Many sites provide images under a Creative Commons or other public copyright license. You can download and use images from these sites subject to the specific license. A license might require you to give attribution to the creator of the image, restrict modification or commercial use of the image, or require you to publish any work you create with the image under the same license.

  • Free Images, owned by a subsidiary of Getty Images, uses a license that allows free use of its images for most purposes. Some images require attribution, however, and some require you to notify the creator prior to using the image.
  • morgueFile uses a license that is less restrictive than most Creative Commons licenses. You may use its images for commercial purposes without attribution, and you may modify the images.
  • Flickr users may license their images under a Creative Commons license, and the site also maintains a database of public domain photos. Most images on Flickr, however, are copyrighted.

License information is available on each Flickr image page. Images that are available for use will say “Some rights reserved”:


You should check the license to see what uses are permitted. Most Flickr images that are available use the CC BY license. Images that are not available, except with the owner’s express permission, are labeled “All rights reserved”:


Both Public Domain and Licensed Images

Wikimedia Commons, the repository for media used on Wikipedia and other sites, offers both public domain images and Creative Commons images. It may be one of the best resources for free images on the internet, although the trade-off is that the selection does not resemble the traditional view of “stock photos.”

This site is also helpful because it provides specific license information for every image, and if you are HTML savvy, gives you the format you need to provide attribution and license information for the image. Each image page includes this information under a “Use this file” link:


It provides language you can use for attribution in plain text:


Or in HTML:


Coming soon: How to find images you can use through Google image search, parody as a form of Fair Use, defamation and likeness rights (and how to avoid such problems), and more on open source software licenses.

Photo credit: Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

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