How Google Image Search Can Help You Find Images You Can Use

Global Panorama [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via FlickrIf you are a freelance writer, blogger, web designer, etc., finding images you can use without having to pay a license fee or royalty can be a challenge. Copyright law protects most creative works, and running afoul of someone’s copyright can potentially be costly. Luckily, the internet has given us a variety of means to find images we can use free of charge. You must investigate whether a particular image is available for use, though, and whether it is subject to any limitations.

Let’s Review, Shall We?

Images and other copyrighted works in the public domain are not subject to copyright protection and are generally free to use, although they might be subject to other legal restrictions, such as the right of publicity. Public copyright licenses, such as Creative Commons licenses, allow use of images and other works free of charge, but with some limitations. You may use copyrighted works with the permission of the copyright owners, which typically involves license fees and/or royalties. The Fair Use doctrine allows the use of copyrighted works without permission or payment, but only in certain specific situations.

Numerous websites offer images that are in the public domain or are covered by public copyright licenses, but searching multiple websites to find the perfect image can be time-consuming and, frankly, tedious. Enter Google’s image search function, which doesn’t quite save the day, but definitely saves some time.

What Is Google Image Search?

If you’re not all that familiar with Google’s search features, it allows you to search specifically for images, videos, news articles, and other forms of media.


With image search, you can narrow your search based on factors like the type of image, the date the image was posted, and any license for use of the image.

Filtering Google Image Search Results by License

Google lets you filter based on three main license categories: usage, modification, and commercial usage. These comprise five filters:
1. Not filtered by license: Assume anything you find with this type of search is covered by copyright;
2. Free to use or share: You may reuse or redistribute these images;
3. Free to use or share, even commercially: You may reuse or redistribute these images for commercial purposes;
4. Free to use, share, or modify: You may reuse or redistribute these images in their original form, or in a modified form; and
5. Free to use, share, or modify, even commercially: You may reuse or redistribute these images for commercial purposes in their original form, or in a modified form.

User Beware!

Google makes no warranties about the actual license status of its image search results:

Before reusing content, make sure that its license is legitimate and check the exact terms of reuse. For example, the license might require that you give credit to the image creator when you use the image. Google can’t tell if the license label is legitimate, so we don’t know if the content is lawfully licensed.

You are responsible for making sure an image actually is available for reuse. You can often determine this by going to the site where it is hosted.

Many of Google’s filtered image search results will come from websites I have mentioned as good sources of free images, such as Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons. DeviantArt is another site that often comes up in search results, and it often has images with public copyright license information.

Other search results may come from blogs hosted by services like Blogger and WordPress, which do not have easily accessible license information. In that situation, contacting the proprietor of the site might be the only way to determine the image’s copyright status. Your best bet is to stick with images from websites that provide clear license information.

So How Do I Do This?

In the screenshot several paragraphs above, you can see a tab for “Images” above the search results. Clicking on that tab takes you to a page of unfiltered image results. From there, you want to go to “Advanced Search,” which you can access from the “gear” icon near the top right of the page:


On the Advanced Search page, go to the bottom of the list of ways to narrow your search results, where it says “usage rights.” This drop-down menu gives you the five filter options discussed above:


Which filter you choose depends on what you plan on doing with the image. If you do not intend to modify the image, you can skip that filter. If you need the image for a website, blog post, or other project you are creating for a client, a commercial use filter is probably a good idea.

“Modifying” the image, in this context, generally means making some substantial change to it. Changing the width from 1,200 pixels to 300 pixels usually does not count as this type of “modification,” since it is still the same image, just smaller.


Obviously, the more filters you apply, the fewer results you will have. The pickings can be pretty slim for some search terms.

Once you find an image you like, you can investigate whether it really is licensed for reuse. With a bit of practice, this will become an easy process—well, except for the “slim pickings” part I just mentioned.

Coming soon: Avoiding problems with defamation and the right of publicity, open-source software licenses, and parody as a form of Fair Use.

Photo credit: Global Panorama [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr.

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