Are You Using Images on Your Website Illegally?

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This is a guest post by Jennifer McKenzie of

JudgeIs your first reaction, “Of course not!”?  Well, even if you think you’re sure about this, I recommend you read on …

Webmasters use images all the time to create logos, help illustrate the point of a subject, break up text on a page or just to make a website more visually appealing.

But is use of these images legal? Maybe, maybe not.


Here’s the deal: If you use images obtained from the internet to create your logo or for use on your website, you could be guilty of copyright infringement and not even realize it.

Copyright infringement is illegal and can get you in a huge tub of hot water. While you might be “free” to use these images, there are still rules to be followed to ensure you don’t infringe on copyrights.

There’s a common misconception that if an image is out on the web it’s “up for grabs.” Even if you purchase a “stock” image, it’s crucial that you adhere to an end-user license agreement.

Internet Images

I love how Google has its “Images” menu item. Whenever I want to see a picture of just about anything, I use Google Images to find what I’m looking for.

But while this may seem obvious to some, believe it or not too many webmasters will grab these images for their own use and republish them without permission. This is copyright infringement whether intentional or not.

If there’s an image you want to republish, you MUST get express permission from the copyright owner before you can legally use it.

What Are Copyright Free Images?

The term “copyright free images” is overused and leads people into believing they can take these images and then call them their own. The only way you can stake claim to an image is if you create it yourself and it is truly an original.

If you Google “copyright free images” 930 million results are found. The truth is the only images that can really be deemed copyright free are those that are in the public domain because public domain works have no copyright.

And even though you are free to use an image from the public domain, it will always remain in the public domain, copyright cannot be restored, and it will never actually be yours.

How About Royalty Free Images?

First of all, understand that royalty-free does not mean copyright-free. If you use a royalty-free image, the creator of that image remains the copyright holder. And royalty-free doesn’t necessarily mean free of charge.

Creators of images will often allow others to use their works for various purposes. For example, I used to publish a travel magazine and would sometimes publish pictures taken by professional photographers.

I would be charged a royalty fee based on my planned use of the photo. If I wanted to use the photo again in a different issue of the magazine, I’d have to pay the photographer another, separate royalty fee.

So what does “royalty-free” mean? It means you are free to use an image as many times you want without having to pay a separate fee for each use. Usually you will pay a one-time flat fee and can use the image as many times as you wish, as long as you adhere to the license agreement attached to it.

The terms of service and license agreement will spell out exactly how you are permitted to use an image. In’s license agreement you can use their images on websites up to 800×600 pixels without copyright notice or credit, but if you want to use an image on t-shirts for resale, you are required to have an “enhanced” license and must include a copyright notice and credit the creator.

In other words, they are giving you permission as long as you abide by their rules.

What About Free Graphics?

There are tons of free graphics available in software and on the web. A good example is Microsoft’s free clip art. Anyone can use these images for whatever they want, right?

WRONG.  While Microsoft isn’t charging you a fee, there are still terms of use with very specific restrictions on the use of these images.

Pretty much every free graphics resource will have some restriction on the use of their images. Some will require credit to the creator or inclusion of a copyright notice. Some even have watermarks embedded already so the copyright will always be included. Some will say you can use images for this but not that.

These Images Are Not Unique

Copyright-free, royalty-free and free graphics can be used by anyone. Even if you’ve paid for the use of an image, that doesn’t take it “off the shelf” – tomorrow someone else can purchase it for their own use as well.

So if want an image for something like a logo and you want your logo to be one-of-a-kind, it’s a bad idea to use anything other than an original creation. This is especially true if you intend to trademark your logo!

The only way to have truly unique and original images is to create them yourself or hire someone else to create them for you. But if you hire someone else, realize that artist will retain copyright of the creation unless you have a copyright assignment agreement.

What Can Happen if You Violate Copyrights

Copyright infringement is serious. If you’re caught, at the very least you will be forced to remove the infringing images from publication.

If legal action is taken, you can be subject to a civil lawsuit in the copyright owner’s jurisdiction and actual and statutory damages that could be financially devastating.

And with certain deliberate violations, you could be subject to criminal penalties carrying massive fines and long prison terms.

The Bottom Line

Plain and simple, don’t take any chances. Don’t use images you have no rights to without express permission, and read end-user license agreements carefully so you understand permissible use.

Jennifer McKenzie is the owner of which provides a DMCA takedown service and information aimed toward creators of original works about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, copyright law and copyright protection. does not provide legal advice.

Lisa’s Note: I use for all my images. Yes, it’s expensive but I have the piece of mind that I have rights to use my images commercially.

Be careful of the sites that say they are “free for commercial use” because often times every image source has not been verified. scans and verifies every single image to ensure they are clear for use.

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  1. Lindy says

    Hi Lisa,

    Thank you very a very informative and helpful write-up here! I know some people have mentioned screenshots, but I’m still a little unclear on when it for sure would or wouldn’t be okay… I’d like to know which of the following are okay to do!
    -take a screen shot of a scene from a movie/show you own and using it in a blog or on a website.
    -same thing, but what if the movie is from Netflix?
    -if I have made a sketch copying a picture from the internet, can I take a screenshot of the original so as to compare the two images? (Or include a link to that picture so people can go see it for themselves?)
    Thanks so much!

  2. says

    if I take any internet photo by screen shoots and save it different named. then upload to my site . is it claim of copy right or not please tell me. I am waiting for your response. I did upload few photo to my site named I want to get approval of Google AdSense. now I will delete all of these or not.

  3. Joy says

    Hi! I’m trying to move forward with my blog and just moved it to self-hosting and thought I should start double checking all my images to make sure things are kosher. Most of my images, with the exception of maybe one or two and of course my own photo’s, were found through a Bing search after selecting “free to modify, share and use commercially” I’ve done this all along in hopes that I wasn’t infringing on copyrights and knowing I might eventually want to start putting ads on my site to earn money. But now since I’m actually thinking of doing just that I really want to double check. Is it safe to go about it this way? Am I missing something? Should I replace all images with ones found in another way just to be safe? What would you recommend?

  4. Andrea says

    What if you work for a web design company that does not have copyrights in place and no non-compete form? Can I use a screen-shot of a website I designed if I get permission from the company who paid my company?

  5. says

    Hi Lisa, Great article, my request may be slightly different,

    If i purchase an object and take my own photograph of it does that mean i can use it legally?

    I’m currently creating a Logo for a company and I was showing them a mock-up of the image i intend to design. They decided they want that actual mock-up, exactly as it was with all the images included. The issue is though that the shield I used in the background was from a website that makes shields and weapons and I had just edited the shield to remove the cross shape in the middle and then added the company’s name and image. Is this legal? If i purchased the shield and took my own photograph of it would that make a difference?

    Kind regards,

    Sai Kelly

    • says

      Yes, if you take the picture yourself you can use it. If you used another image, even if you edited it, I believe you still cannot use it unless you have official permission.

  6. Manny says

    Hi Lisa:
    I have a recipe website which also has all the local restaurants information included. I have been taking my own pictures of the front of each restaurant to show on the pages of each one. Is this ok, since I took the pictures myself? Thank you.

  7. Tina says

    If I use an image that came with my computer, such as the pictures or wallpapers that come on the computer when you first buy it, and I want to use one of those pictures in a brochure for my company how do I find out how to use this legally?

  8. says

    Quick question, if I need to find product images to display for research purposes, what are my options? For example, if I feature an article about the iPhone 5, can I display an image of the iPhone 5 that I get from Google, or would this be copyright infringement? What are my options for getting a legal image to display?


    • says

      Hi Reed

      No, technically you should not without permission. Any image that you get from Google is owned by the original creator unless otherwise noted. If you need a lot of images, it’s best to join a photo membership site that gives you rights or find a stock photo site that grants you free rights. (Morguefile is one) Last option is to take the pic yourself.

      • says

        Ah so if you take the picture of the object yourself, does this mean you have the right to use the image even though the product wasn’t yours? What if you alter that image?

  9. Deepak says

    What if I will use the “Editorial Use Only” photos in my blog or website ?
    Is it okay to use these types of images ?

  10. says

    Is it legal to use a companies website or celebrity photo if you A) give credit to the photographer or the company; B) also link directly to their website from the image?

    My thoughts are that I would like to write a short, one-page snap-shot of some businesses/people. I have no problem giving credit and would rather that anyway.

    • says

      Usually giving credit is enough for most owners of the copyright but it still doesn’t make it legal. It just means there is less of a chance of legal woes.

  11. alex says

    question…answer needed ASAP

    If a webite such offers clip art does not have an updated (2013) copyright notice on the bottom of their website, does that mean those images are now available for free use? I’ve heard of a similar idea used by website “squatters” who will buy the rights to a domain if it is not renewed be a certain date. I’m asking because I am working on a yearbook for my class and I want to keep the images pretty uniform and this website is very consistent with the styling. Their last copyright was 2012 so….are the images free now?

    • says

      Hi Alex

      No, technically the owner of the website (unless proven otherwise) automatically has copyright rights to their images and content and does not mean it’s free for everyone’s use (even though people may act as if they are free and steal them.)

  12. Adam M says


    I want to know HOW various blogs use images legally on their site.

    For more information on my question read below:

    Funnily enough my name is also adam but i am wondering if you could please reply to Adam’s comment near the top of the page. I am having TH EXACT SAME PROBLEM. In addition to his comment, I have my own question somewhat related to his. How do all these film sites/blogs use SO MANY images and photos from the films they review. Are screenshots free to use?

    I have pasted Adam’s original comment below:

    I was wondering about posting official released promotional photos?

    I have a blog of my own, and I’ve often wanted to post photos from upcoming TV episodes or films. They get released and re-posted all over the web. Every entertainment site/blog seems to use them. Here are 3 links that are all using the same photos:

    Would it be considered illegal to post such images on my own site? Obviously I wouldn’t edit them or claim they are mine, and all details about the photos – if included – would be posted as well.

    What are your thoughts?

    • says

      It really does come down to the fact that the images are not yours. The companies you are referring to have probably worked out an arrangement with the entertainment groups to post images. They may even be emailing these images to them. Such is the case in the relationship between Mattel and retail toy stores.

      On the flip side, I doubt that anyone providing free and favorable marketing for their movie or TV show would ever complain to you about you hosting their images. This is a risk, however, that you would take.

  13. Steve says

    If you are uncertain about copyright infringement or are not 100% sure if you are doing it, it’s always a good idea to be safe than sorry. Some of the fines are ridiculously high. If you feel like your intellectual property, images, articles or any other original content is being used you also have the right to get what you deserve.

  14. Adam M says

    Funnily enough my name is also adam but i am wondering if you could please reply to Adam’s comment near the top of the page. I am having TH EXACT SAME PROBLEM. In addition to his comment, I have my own question somewhat related to his. How do all these film sites/blogs use SO MANY images and photos from the films they review. Are screenshots free to use?

    I have pasted Adam’s original comment below:

    I was wondering about posting official released promotional photos?

    I have a blog of my own, and I’ve often wanted to post photos from upcoming TV episodes or films. They get released and re-posted all over the web. Every entertainment site/blog seems to use them. Here are 3 links that are all using the same photos:

    Would it be considered illegal to post such images on my own site? Obviously I wouldn’t edit them or claim they are mine, and all details about the photos – if included – would be posted as well.

    What are your thoughts?

  15. says

    thanks for the information! I have been sitting here looking for free picture for nearly 3 hours. Driving me crazy. What about screenshots? I can’t get in trouble for taking a screenshot using it on my blog cannot? Thanks so much

    • says

      For the most part screenshots created by you are OK as long as they aren’t screenshots of other copyrighted info (misuse of company logos, etc.) I use screenshots all the time in my videos and content.

  16. Anonymous says

    Hi Lisa,
    I’d would like to use a hundred or more hairstyle images on our iphone app, for clients of our Hair Salons to peruse before their visit. Will I have to use images from stock photo sites? How can other websites use hundreds of photos including celebrities for theirs. is an example. Unsure how to obtain safe images to use for the app, any feedback would be welcome thanks.

    • says

      It’s always safe to go the legal route. Yes people do it all the time, but it doesn’t make it right. The person above your comment got fined for using someone else’s images. To me, it’s just not worth it. If you are using someone else’s images for commercial purposes especially, it is illegal. Sure you can gamble and the chances of getting caught may even be slim, but why risk it?

  17. debbie says

    Hi Lisa, I had a picture on my website for about about 2 years..I got a legal thingy in the mail from gettysimage fining me for using it. Had no idea. I talked to the people and I took down the picture and just paid the fine…why would they they wait 2 years and should I have not of been so quick to pay the fine? Live and Learn I guess

      • Anonymous says

        I received a fine for 875.00 for using one “unmarked” image from Google Images. Never knew it was copyrighted or that I needed to ask permission. That’s a steep fine for an uniformed teacher…

  18. Leroy says

    But if you change more than 50% of the image dousn’t it officially become yours ?
    I’m sure I read a law about that

  19. Trudie says

    Just thought I would add my perspective as an amateur photographer! I have found some of my images being used online. Mostly in blogs and Tumblr and mostly for these if I get a link back I’m ok with the use – obviously it is even nicer if you ask first.

    I do draw the line a profit making website that I find my images on. I am a contributor to Getty Images and there is a link on my Flickr page which asks if you wish to license this image and it will take you off to Getty to do so. This means I make a few pounds for my work.

    I have had to send polite emails to web page owners to ask them to either license or remove an image and mostly people are just apologetic because they didn’t realise it was a problem. I have had one or two really rude and unprofessional replies along the lines of “well I found it on the web so I thought I could use it” or “you should watermark if you don’t want this to happen”. I did point out to one taxi firm that they wouldn’t like people fare dodging and would probably pursue that through the courts so why should I be okay with him using my image!

    As with most things it is about being courteous and respectful.

  20. says

    Hi Lisa, thanks for this article, it was very informative for me!!! I’m an italian webmaster and i didn’t know this about images… I created a website (like a mini social-network) about the years ’60/’70/’80/’90, where also the members can publish images… After reading this article I leave my project because, I could use images without copyright, but how can I prevent others to upload images with copyrigth?? Pfff, after four months of work I have to leave my site! = (

  21. says

    HI Lisa, I’m currently going through a very limited use of stock imagery phase. yes its generally very professionally photographed but a lot of it is extremely clichéd/corny, its the content I have the admittedly trivial issue with.This copyright issue reinforces my decision somewhat most really great sites have illustration drawn specifically that site and nowhere else

  22. Name (required) says

    My head is spinning!! So, if I have a website business that sells different breeds of snakes and find a google image of one that has no copyright or name attached to the image, it is illegal to use? I would think if someone didn’t want you to use their image, they would have their logo or name listed on the photo.

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