Great Resources for Using Online Photos the Right Way

Copyright license choice

Picture Via opensoursceway and flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/opensourceway/4371001458/

So you’ve finished that blog post and now you want to find a great photo that will compel people to click on your link when they see it on Facebook. You pull up Google images and type in a word from your blog post, and lo-and-behold the internet dumps a treasure-trove of options onto your lap. You eagerly wade through the pictures, trying to find that one perfect photo that will make even the most click-weary want to read your blog post. Before you decide to “save as image” stop and ask yourself whether that picture can actually be used.

Say What?

Anyone who lived through the Napster era knows that copyright infringement happens. Sometimes we lament the loss of free services such as Napster, because it allowed us to get free content. But for the most part, we understand that copyright infringement is wrong.

The Problem

Do you remember when Google images first came into being? It was awesome. Suddenly, you could not only search for websites, you could search photos within those websites. Oh, how I loved this feature. It led to many hours of finding cool background images for my desktop. But it created a problem. Google’s indexing of pictures around the web made them seem incredibly accessible, where before they were not. Couple this with the fact that most photos published after March 1, 1989 do not require a copyright notice, and you have a recipe for easy copyright infringement. When was the last time you saw a photo from the internet with a copyright mark on it?  I believe that this has led to the belief that these pictures are “free to use”.

Now, I understand wanting to use these photos, especially since iStockphoto is so expensive. I mean, what’s the harm in putting it on a blog post?

The harm is that despite all rationalizations it is still wrong. You are still “stealing” someone’s work and using it without their persmission. It’s not just a moral issue, it’s a money issue. If you had paid for that picture, you could be contributing to the livelihood of an artist (something I feel very strong about). Instead, the picture is ripped off from a website and plastered all over the internet, making it hard for that artist to get paid for their work.

Is there a solution? Can you still find a way to use the photo you desire?


The Solutions

First of all there is a site that you can use to trace all instances of a photo on the internet. It’s called TinEye and we use it when we want to know where an image originated from. For artists, it can also be used to track down instances of your work across the internet. Below is a screenshot of what the front-page of the website looks like. As you can see, you can upload an image, copy and paste url, or even drag and drop a photo from another open page directly onto the TinEye website.

Because I was curious, I took the screenshot I made of their website and dropped it into the search engine. I got 39 results back. That means that 39 other people took or used a previous screenshot of TinEye’s home page.

TinEye Reverse Image Search

How To Be Really Safe

There are other ways to be really safe, though. You can use free services that allow you to use their photos under a creative commons license. These are sites such as flickr and Creative Commons search that give you access to photos that can be readily used. Most of these photos only need an “attribution link” (a link back to the place where you found the photo). Though you should check the license just to be sure, as there is more than one version of the creative commons license.

There are actually many sites out there that index or host creative commons photos. Doing a Google search for creative commons images brings up a couple of sites and blog posts about the issue. One of our favorites is Photo Pin (which has a very unique interface). If you do decide to use Photo Pin and are only looking for free images, don’t click on the top row of images as they are sponsored results from iStockphoto.

Another great site is the free image search from 123rf (a stock photo site that is quickly becoming a favorite of mine). This site allows artists to upload and tag their photos as free to use. You can use their free image search to find these photos and add them to your website as long as you include the attribution link back to them.


I got into a conversation on the Small Business Forum at Social Media Examiner about this topic. Here’s a couple more resources for free (or cheap photos). First up is Comp Fight, which is actually a flickr search tool that searches only their creative commons commercial license photos . This is not that different than using flickr search itself, except that it makes searching those commercially available pictures much easier. Another great resource is this blog post by Rich Brooks where he covers 13 free or cheap stock photo sites. I love the last one (your smart phone). Which is a great free resource for photos that is probably with you 24/7! 🙂

So remember, before you use a photo that you found on the internet, make sure to check and see if you can actually use it. To be safe, always assume it is copyrighted unless it says otherwise.

Cassie Witt
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About Cassie Witt

Hiya, I'm Cassie and I've been doing social media since 2008. I've managed, consulted, and built social media programs in both corporate and freelance settings. I enjoy helping business owners and managers learn to get better results out of their social media, without wasting a lot of time. I'm also a very geeky bookworm, who loves to read and watch fantasy and sci-fi shows, and play board games with my family.


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