There’s a lot of confusion these days about how you can use images online. Lots of people think that because creative content, like a photo, has been published on the Internet then they are free to use it however they wish. This simply isn’t true - and we’re going to explain exactly why it isn’t true in this article.

We’ll also show you the best ways to stay on the right side of the law when using images that you’ve found online and talk about some methods you can use to find images that are free to use.

What are the rules about copyright of images and photos?

Copyright is a form of legal protection that is automatically assigned to content creators at the moment of creation. In other words, the moment you take a photograph, you own the copyright to it. You don’t have to register it with a special organisation, you don’t have to fill in a form or add a legal notice to the image. The rights to use, amend or sell that image are yours and yours alone.

You are also allowed to give away or sell those rights, if you wish - and that’s how many professional photographers make money; by selling rights to their work. That also means that no one else is allowed to use your work without your permission.

Many people assume that if content is online that it is "public domain" and that it's not copyrighted. That’s just a myth.

Content that’s published online is still protected by copyright law. If you’ve ever downloaded images from the net and republished them, used them in posters or newsletters without permission, you may have been breaking the law...

Copyright law and photography - getting it wrong

You wouldn’t be on your own though. Some pretty big organisations don’t always get it right. As recently as 2011, the BBC attributed images of the Tottenham riots as originating “from Twitter” without notifying the original photographers or correctly naming them.

Journalist and author Andy Mabbett challenged this and posted the exchange on his blog. A BBC spokesperson said: "Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain."

This is not actually true. Even if a photo has been published on a social network, like Twitter, the original rights-holder retains copyright. Any third party who wants to republish that image should contact the original rights-holder for permission.

Twitter’s terms and conditions specify that users retain rights over all images they post.

Finding free images using Creative Commons

What if you’re a photographer who actually wants to give away your image rights to others? Creative Commons gives you an easy way to do that. Creative Commons licensing is inspired by open source and the GNU Project approach to software licensing. It allows you to select which permissions you want to give to people, for free.

With Creative Commons licensing you can give away all rights to your work, or just some of them. The site has an online form that helps you to configure exactly which of your rights you want to give away.

The most common licensing is an Attribution license, which lets anyone use your image in any way they like, as long as they give you credit. Which seems fair enough. All you should have to do is include a link back to the original page and to the creative commons license.

Creative Commons gives you an easy way to share your rights with others.


How to find licensed images online

Creative Commons also makes it easier to find online imagery that you can use for free, with major search engines supporting the licensing structure.

When using Google Images:

  1. Search for images using keywords as usual.
  2. When results are returned click “Search Tools”
  3. Choose “Usage Rights”. Select an option from the dropdown menu.

Flickr has similar functionality:

  1. Again, search for images using a keyword or phrase.
  2. When results are returned click “Advanced Search”
  3. Tick the box labeled “Only search within Creative Commons licensed content”.

How to find free images online

Using search engines is a bit hit and miss. You’ll find many of the results are pretty poor... We’ll finish off with a look at three free photo sites, where you can find high resolution images that are free to use in any of your projects.

Morgue File

When it debuted MorgueFile was an anomaly among free stock image sites. Devoid of flashy adverts and boasting a simple, clean design, it has a database full of tastefully shot, free to use photography.  

Licenses vary - but in many cases all you have to do is provide a link back to the site to use any of the excellent imagery you find there.


Similar to MorgueFile but aimed at a more general audience, PixaBay is a community run database of free-to-use photography. Again, licenses vary but in PixaBay’s case many of the images are listed as “Public Domain”, which means that you can use them without attribution.

If you’re a photographer you can contribute images to either MorgueFile or PixaBay and add something back to the community too!

Wiki Commons

A bit of a dip in quality here because at Wiki Commons anyone can upload public domain images. Like Wikipedia, the aim here is to crowdsource a central repository of public domain material. All the images included in Wikipedia are automatically available here too.

It’s easy to find images to represent virtually any subject at Wiki Commons- and everything is offered using a Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike license. Again, anyone can contribute to the project.

See also:

  • How to use iCloud Photo Sharing on the iPad and iPhone