How to find good (free!) images without stealing them

Lara Jade never expected to find an image of herself on the cover of a porn DVD.  The 18-year old had posted a self-portrait to an online forum, and ended up suing TVX Films for using it as the cover of “Body Magic.” (source)

While you probably empathize with Lara, the way most people use images makes them more like TVX Films.  Using the result of a Google image search in a work website, student paper or presentation, or personal blog is just as illegal (while not quite as distressing).

Free high-quality and distinctive artwork is available — you just have to know where to get it.  This guide presents 4 categories of images and gives a short guide on how you can and can’t use each.  While not legal advice, it represents my best understanding of the current laws.

1. All Rights Reserved

The bottom line is you can’t use any images without the owner giving you permission.   Unless you can find a note on the image stating otherwise, assume that anything you locate falls under this category.

To use an “all rights reserved” artwork, you must be able to:

  • Show that there is a compelling reason why this image, and this image alone, satisfies some need for reporting, scholarship, critique, or analysis.
  • Provide credit (attribution) saying where you got this image, and make it plain that you do not own the rights to it.
  • Ethically, if you are making money from something, you need to show a higher need to use a particular image.

Some examples:

  •  There is an image of the GE Board on  You could use this in a presentation or paper talking about GE’s specific board.  You can’t use it if you just need an image of people in business suits, or talking about boards in general.
  • You can use company logos when you talk about them.  For example, using the GE logo from Wikipedia helps to identify the company and would be fine to use in a paper discussing the company.
  • In a presentation on the company Evernote, using a screenshot, chart, or diagram from the company website would be fine (with proper attribution).  However, using their image in a presentation about laptops in general would not be acceptable.

 2.  Free and Paid Stock Photography Websites

There are a variety of stock photography websites on the web.  While iStockPhoto costs from 5-20$ for an image, others, such as Microsoft Clipart Online and stock.xchng are free.

As long as you don’t use the image as a logo for your company, you’re generally free to use them however you like.

3.  Creative Commons

While most of Flickr is not licensed this way under Creative Common’s permissive set of licenses, they do have advanced search option that gives access to some really interesting images.  There are some restrictions.  Look at each image to see if they have any of the following restrictions.

  •  Non-commercial.  If tagged non-commercial, you can’t make money from using an image.
  • Attribution.  Almost all require you to note the original creator.  Generally, a small link or note next to the image appears to be the best practice.
  • Alterations.  Some pictures do not allow alterations.

 4. Public Domain

Public domain is the easiest and least restrictive way to incorporate images into your work.  The best source for this is Wikipedia.  The major problem with public domain is that it’s complicated to release images into this license, so there isn’t as much out there included in this license. There is a decent amount of government-contributed artwork in Wikipedia, such as this 1937 image of Division of National Archives.

What you can do:

  • Use the image.
  • Attribution is not required.


Bruno Mercier found that a French Publishing House used his image as the cover for their latest book without paying.  In an email exchange, the publisher said that he thought he had the right to use any unprotected image posted online.  The author (a 70-yearold woman) even wrote him that it was on honor for his image to be used on her book.

Once lawyers became involved, he was eventually paid. But, it was a lot of trouble on everyone’s part for a simple, but complete, misunderstanding of how copyright works.

Posting an image online does not make it free, but there are good ways to find free images without putting yourself, your business, or your ethics in jeopardy.


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