3 Killer Sources of Copyright-Free Images to Avoid Getting Punched in the Face with a Lawsuit

Has your business ever gotten you in trouble with the law?

It’s something that seems to be happening more and more to small business owners, and it’s the result of being misinformed on a very common issue. That’s why I’m sharing this story to set the record straight and hopefully save you hundreds or thousands of dollars (for real).

This is a true story that came from our own community:

Not long ago, small business owner Anne received some surprising news in the form of a cease and desist letter. It came from a very large company that sells stock photography to businesses all over the world. I’m going to call this company Lots of Stock Photos, Inc. for the purpose of this post. The reason for the cease and desist letter? Anne had used several stock images without paying for their license.

She believed that the images she used fell under fair use – Anne’s blog is free to the public, not monetized with ads or anything, and the post in question was educational – she had even credited Lots of Stock Photos as the source! “I seriously doubt exposure on my humble blog would affect the value of 15 year-old previously published photos, not to mention that there are entire social media platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr devoted to sharing images – most of which are not owned by the people sharing them.”

Anne immediately took down the blog post that featured those images, and contacted Lots of Stock Photos to sincerely apologize for her mistake. Their legal department accepted that it was an accidental infringement, so they offered to reduce the fine from $2,340 ($780.00 for each of the 3 photo violations) to $1,650 ($550.00 per photo). Lots of Stock Photos gave her a little less than a month to pay the fines or be faced with a lawsuit.

Out of curiosity, Anne called the licensing division of the same company to find out how much it would cost to license the same photos for her blog. The answer? $49.50 per photo.

Anne’s lawyer confirmed that unfortunately, the law was on Lots of Stock Photo’s side here; she was better off just paying the fine in order to avoid losing the case and having to pay so much more. Anne learned that big stock photo companies now have software trawling the net for any unlicensed usage of their photos, and they do not have to ask you to take photos down before charging you for them and threatening to sue.

Now that’s an expensive lesson, but it actually could have been a lot worse.

Maybe you have harmlessly used images that you’ve found online that you don’t have a license for. My advice? Take them down. Replace them with other images so that you don’t get slapped with a huge fine or a lawsuit like Anne did, just because she didn’t completely understand the laws surrounding image copyright on the web.Here’s a great breakdown of those laws – it’s a good idea to get familiar with them.

So where can you find images you ARE allowed to use in your work?

Fortunately you have a lot of options (and more and more seem to crop up every month). Here are a few of my favorites:

Create Your Own Images

Want some great copyright-free images? Make them yourself! This is one of my team’s go-to techniques for adding interesting, unique images to our blog posts. But before you say “Come on Laura, I know about as much about graphic design as I know about the intricacies of space travel,” check out this fan-favorite blog post all about creating easy, gorgeous graphics for your business with a few choice online tools.

Use Public Domain Images

Hooray! That’s right, I’m celebrating. I’m celebrating because you’re about to discover some of my favorite resources: collections of copyright-free images that AREN’T terrible. These images are, in fact, beautiful. They’re so great that I find myself looking for an excuse to use them!

Check out these 3 collections of great images that are 100% license-free:

  1. Death to the Stock Photo. Sign up for your free subscription to get a zip file of free high quality images every month, straight to your inbox. There’s a different theme each month, the images are gorgeous, and you’re just going to feel good flipping through them whenever they’re delivered via email.

  2. Unsplash. More beautiful photos, completely free for your own use. Their tumblr accounts gets updated with 10 new photos every 10 days. You’re welcome!

  3. morgueFile. Ignore the slightly creepy name (there’s a reason for it, they swear) and dive into another collection of great free stock photos that don’t require you to cite the source when using them.

Use Images with Creative Commons Licenses

Haven’t found what you’re looking for in any of the above resources? Not to worry: you can continue your search by looking for images that have Creative Commonslicenses. A Creative Commons license is essentially permission from the owner of the image to use it for free. Isn’t that just so nice of people? There are different versions of the Creative Commons license; you can read all about them here. I suggest looking for images that only require to attribute the image to the owner(s) in some way and are free to use for commercial purposes.

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Here’s how to find images with Creative Commons Licenses:

  1. Head over to search.creativecommons.org.

  2. Insert a keyword for the kind of image you’re looking for.

  3. Make sure you check the box that says “use for commercial purposes;” it’s a good idea to also check the other box, “modify, adapt, or build upon” in case you want to add your logo, some text or anything else to the image.

  4. Choose where you’d like to search (like Flickr or Google Images). Once you click on one of these options, you’ll automatically be taken to the results.

  5. Select an image you like and then look very carefully for the information regarding copyright, Creative Commons, license, and/or attribution. If you can’t meet the requirements of the owner, do not use the image. If you aren’t sure if you meet the requirements, email him or or to ask.

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IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT confuse your company’s blog with a noncommercial blog. Many people think that because they don’t directly make money off their blog, they’re free to fill it with images that have licenses restricting their use for “noncommercial” purposes. This is an extremely grey area, but if your blog has any link to your sales page or to another site that has your sales page (or anything encouraging people to give you money in some way – yes that includes a “Work With Me” link), in my eyes that makes your blog commercial. Don’t risk getting slapped with a fine just because people can read your blog for free – it’s still a piece of your marketing.

In the case of a license that requires you attribute the source, read to see if the owner gives specific instructions on how to make that attribution. If not, here are a few ways attribute ownership of an image:

  1. Include the original url of the image in the image’s caption.
  2. Include the url on the actual image. When you’re using an image on Facebook, Pinterest, a Facebook ad or on your site, you may not want to take up space in the description to include a long url. You can use one of the aforementionedfree online tools to tweak your images and overlay the the image with the url, like in this example:

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This was one of the images that my team used to promote our recent Famous in Five Challenge. It’s made up of a photo I took myself, but the wreath we added has a Creative Commons license that gave us free use of the image so long as we attributed the owner. It doesn’t make sense to put this url in the copy of our Facebook post, so we added it directly to the image. We also added our own url so that if someone were to pin this image or share it somewhere else on the interwebs, we’d get credit for it.

This is the exact process my team and I use to keep our blog and pieces of content full of images without spending tons on stock photos (and without running the risk of a lawsuit).

“But Laura, what’s the deal with these images that are all over Facebook that don’t credit any source whatsoever? Can’t I do that if everyone else is doing it??”

Very good question. This is one of those incredibly grey areas that will likely clear up eventually thanks to some unpleasant lawsuits. If you dig deep into the issue (like this article on Hubpages) you’ll see that copyrights are already being violated on social media.

So how do you navigate these murky waters? Here’s how to be smart about it:

Facebook can be trickier or easier to attribute the owner of an image, depending on how you’re sharing content. If Marie Forleo creates an image that she legally owns and shares it on her Facebook page, you can simply use the Share button to post the same image on your page. The source will be shown automatically.

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If you spot an image you like somewhere on Facebook but you can’t be sure of the original owner or the attribution requirements, don’t share it on your business’s Facebook page. This may sound paranoid but better safe than sorry, right?

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a lawyer. These suggestions for safe copyright-free image use come from some research but also some anecdotal evidence. Like I said, this topic is full of yet-to-be-answered questions. I like to err on the side of caution, and I can only suggest that other business owners do the same.

What about you? Do you have any other tricks or sources for great images? If so, please let us know what they are in the comments – we believe in sharing the wealth around here, so tell us the ways you’re styling your own blog below!

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