Elegant Content Guru
Image Use and Copyright Guidelines

The challenge is how to discern if an image is copyrighted, is royalty-free, has a creative commons license, or is public domain. I’d also like to add up front that this information is not meant to bring you doom and gloom, rather it is an effort to find solutions to this ongoing challenge for bloggers, website owners, marketers, teachers, lovers of arts and crafts, and all digitally creative people everywhere. To help you get started, I’ve outlined the basics that everyone needs to know before they start using images on their websites, marketing or social media.

First, there are a ton of tools online that are designed to search a particular image to find it’s origins. However, they do not search an entire site for plagiarism, instead, they only search one image at a time. These are designed for the owners of the image to see who is using their image. They are referred to as Image Plagiarism Checkers.

Here is a good example of a plagiarism checker: PlagHunter

If you want to use an image that you find in your own search, these are very good tools, but unnecessary because the Google Advanced Image Search is all you need. (This is also referred to as a Reverse Image Search).

But the good news is, you can set up your own system to check images in advance of use. First, let’s be clear about the terminology surrounding this topic.

The Terminology

• Image Copyright

“Copyright free means just what it says — a copyright free work is not protected by copyright. While you might have to pay a fee to obtain a copy of the work, your use will not be restricted unless you’ve agreed that it will be (in an enforceable contract). The term “copyright free” is often used, mistakenly, where copyrighted works are licensed to the public for free … but with some restrictions on use.” – Public Domain Sherpa

• Royalty-Free

“Royalty-free generally means that you pay a one-time fee in exchange for the right to use a photograph (or some other work protected by copyright, patent, or trademark) according to agreed upon terms, with no ongoing license fees due for further use.” – Public Domain Sherpa

• Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a system that allows content creators to make their work available for certain purposes without requiring express permission. You may have seen Creative Commons (or CC) licenses on sites like Flickr, Wikipedia, or YouTube. There are several different Creative Commons licenses, ranging from quite restricted (you can use the image with attribution, but not for commercial purposes, and you can’t make derivatives) to wide open.

• Public Domain

Works in the public domain are those whose exclusive intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable. For example, the works of Shakespeare and Beethoven, and most of the early silent films are all now in the public domain by either being created before copyrights existed or leaving the copyright term. – Wikipedia Public Domain

• Fair Use

Fair Use is the most disputable area in copyright, as it assumes that you may not have to ask permission from the image owner if you’re using it for getting feedback, criticism or comments, or for the purposes of teaching, educating, reporting news or research. At times, the bond between educational and commercial purposes is unclear on blogs, so it’s better to ask permission and play it safe. – WrittenT

The Caveats & Checklists

If you have any input, please contact me directly through Messenger (bottom right of screen) or the Contact Form on this site. Here are some guidelines I’ve curated. Please note that this is a good list from which to build your own checklist for image use. 

  1. Never use an image with company branding. There are also caveats to this because some people put branding on their photos so that people WILL share them in an attempt to get free advertising.
  2. But, if you want to avoid plagiarism, it’s best to ask the owner of the image for permission. The downside to this is it is time-consuming and slows down your production.
  3. Always give credit where credit is due. Do this even if the images are royalty-free or licensed for free use by a source such as Creative Commons. Use the phrase “Image Source” and link it directly to the source of the image on its original website.
  4. Some sites use the name of the photographer or the website name in place of “Image Source” which I think looks nice as long as a set format is used consistently throughout your website so that readers immediately know that it is a source. Here is an excellent article on how to cite images: The Honor Code of a Noble Blogger How to Cite Pictures
  5. Contact the owners of the image and ask for permission to use the image.

The Solutions

• Google Image Search with Parameters

Use the Google Advanced Image Search to find images that are “free to use or share, even commercially”. Then, go ahead and click through to check the actual page that holds the image, to check for the appropriate license. I wonder how many people are completely unaware that this Google feature exists!
Google Advanced Image Search
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