How to Find Free Images You Can [Legally] Use Online on Websites, Social Media Posts & Newsletters

photographerFor the thousandth time — NO! You cannot just do a search on Google image search, save the image to your computer and then upload it to your website.

A lot of people do it and if you have a not for profit website, you may have nothing to be concerned about, unless you are concerned about being fair.

Would you go into a photography gallery, take a photo off the wall and walk out with it? Using images without permission is the same thing. Photographers, graphic artists and fine artists make a living by creating these images and selling them or the rights to use them.  If you just take the image and use it without compensating them in some way, you are stealing.

Some people take an image from another site, or from search engine results, and use it and note where the image came from and maybe link back to the site it originally came from.  That’s a bit better, but still not the right way to get images for your site. Sometimes all the image owner wants is credit and a link back, but you need to be sure.

creative commons licenseCreative Commons

For centuries visual artists, writers, etc. have struggle with how to protect their works from being stolen.  With the rise of the internet, this issue became massive as it was so easy to copy and download images, articles, etc. straight from the web and slightly edit, or not even that, and pass on as your own.

In December 2002, to address this issue, Creative Commons released a set of copyright licenses for free to the public. Content and image creators could then indicate which copyright licenses they wanted for each particular work. Now there are hundreds of millions of works licensed by Creative Commons.

Click here to see a list of Creative Commons licenses.

When you are doing a search for Creative Commons licensed materials you need to check that that license suits your needs.  If your site is commercial, check that the license does not specify “Non-Commercial”.  If you intend to modify the image (crop, add a cute quote, etc.) then make sure that the license does not specify “Non-Derivs”, which means you can only use it unchanged.  All Creative Commons licenses require “Attribution”: “You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work.” In some cases the owner will specify exactly how she wants to be attributed. If it is not indicated, I put the person’s name (or username in the case of Flickr, etc.) and link back to the page where the original image is.

Public Domain

Works in the public domain are those where intellectual property rights do not apply. They have either expired, have been reliquinshed, etc. The issue is that most people don’t have the resources to confirm what the IP rights are to images found online.  Some people think that because an image is available all over the internet, is from a movie or other widely available source it means that it is in the public domain.  This is not the case. The same goes for corporate logos, images of famous people, etc.

Luckily there are some resources that have done the research for us and include either searches for images in the public domain or licensed under Creative Commons or both.

Resources for Free Images via Creative Commons Licenses or Public Domain

Creative Commons Search
Choose from one of many search engines that provide Creative Commons like Flikr, Google, Wikimedia Commons. You can also search videos on YouTube and sound clips from Sound Cloud.

Flickr Advanced Search 
Go to the bottom of the search form and tick to search “

Google Advanced Image Search
Go to the bottom of the search form and indicate which “usage rights” meet your needs.

All of the clip art on this site is available for use, even commercial and altered for your purpose.

Morgue File
Morgue File was set up to provide free material for artists to alter to create their own works from. If you want to just use an image straight from the site as is, you need to contact the photographer.

A search engine with only images available under Creative Commons Commercial licenses or under public domain. There is a built in tool to resize and get an embed code for your site with the attribution information; making it easier than searching through Flickr or Google Images and figuring out the attribution and how to add it. You’ll need a Google account with Picasa. The hitch, you can only download up to 5 images per month for free. For $2.99/month you can download up to 125 images per month and for $9.99/month you can download 1,250 per month.

You can also see a good listing of public domain resources at Wikipedia, which is one of the first places any of us would have come across mentions of Creative Commons.

You still need to take care, even when using images from any of these sources:

  • Even if your images have the correct Creative Commons license when you first use it, there are cases where creators changed their license and then site owners are required to change the images.
  • If you go for public domain images, make sure that the source where you find them is reliable and has truly verified that this is the case.

You may be better off paying to use images from a stock image site.  You then have very clear usage terms — and you don’t have to worry about how/where to add the attribution.  There are a wide range of sites where you can purchase stock images, though many require you to pay a monthly subscription or pay a good bit for credits so you can purchase images.  If your website is for your business, you need to factor this into your marketing budget.

Affordable Stock Image Websites

iStockphoto – one of the few that allow you to buy a single image, though cheaper if you buy a bundle of credits.  They’ve recently reduced the number of credits required to purchase many of their images with many some available in the smallest size for 1 credit. Currently a bundle of 10 credits, the smallest bundle, is about $60 (based on conversion from euros that I have for my account).

Big Stock – you can subscribe on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis; or buy a bundle of credits. The monthly subscription currently costs $39/month and the smallest bundle is 10 credits and costs $30. There are a number of small images for 1 credit.

Ways to Save Money Using Stock Image Sites

  • Plan ahead and save up to buy a larger bundle of credits.  It’s cheaper than purchasing per image or a smaller bundle each time you need images.
  • Watch out for discounts and special offers. I sign up for most of the stock photography sites and from time to time nearly all of them send mailings with special offers and discounts.
  • As images are prices per size, check the maximum size you will need.
  • Big Stock Photo even offers a free image each month, of their choosing, but occassionally it will suit your need, especially for social media purposes.
  • Download a sample, aka “comp”, with a watermark to first to see how the image looks before making a purchase.

But Every Body is Doing It!!!

While it is unlikely that you will get in trouble for using images that many others are using without checking the license, you still need to decide what is right for you.  In our local CoderDojo we teach the children to provide attribution to all sources of images, written content, code snippets, etc. even though these are not commercial projects; because it is about being fair and respecting the creators of the original materials just as we’d like our own work to be respected.

Do you know of any other resources for free or cheap images?

Please share in the comments below.

[Creative Commons logo licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.]