Add pictures to your writing … without breaking the law

Out there in internet land, there is a widely held belief that images found using Google’s image search function are ‘public domain’ and free to use. This is wrong, and thinking otherwise could be costly.

Finding a photo or diagram on Google does not mean that you can freely use that image in a Word document or Powerpoint slide, on a webpage or on your blog, nor anywhere else. The same goes for any other image, piece of writing or piece of music, for that matter. 

You wouldn’t steal a shirt from a clothing store just because you can pick it up and try it on. Re-using anything you find on the web just because you can copy and paste it is no different. At the very least you should be aware of your right to copy that content before you do.

The reality is that many, indeed most, images on the web are protected by copyright, and using those images without permission could lead to you or your organisation receiving a hefty bill. 

There are many examples of this happening, including the web copywriting firm that was forced to pay $4,000 for an image one of their staff found on a website (and which they could have bought for $10), or a person who was billed over £1,000 by Getty Images for using two protected images. (Getty Images, for instance, are a photo agency – they actively chase copyright infringements in order to protect their intellectual property.)

As a rule of thumb, it is best to assume that an image is copyright protected unless it is clearly marked otherwise – not the other way around. Images (and other web-based content) do not need to be marked copyright or © in order to have copyright protection. 

Finding free or low cost images

There really isn’t any need to use copyrighted imagery to accompany your writing as there are ample online sources of free or inexpensive photos and illustrations. Here are five tips:

  • Google’s image search function recently gained a new feature which helps you search for ‘free to use’ images. After doing an image search, click the Search Tools button, then Usage Rights and make a selection. Your search will only return images that can be freely used. Attribution is normally needed.*  
sydney harbour bridge - Google Search 2014-01-20 17-03-15.jpg
  • Another source is Do a search using the box at top right, then click on Advanced Search. At the bottom of the list of options is ‘Only search within Creative Commons-licensed content’. Such content has been specifically tagged by its creator for royalty-free use, usually provided attribution is given.
  • When doing these sorts of searches, ‘Commercial use’ generally refers to use of the content for the purpose of making a product that you intend to sell. In other words, you would need a ‘commercial use’ photo if you want to include it in a book, or sell photo mugs including that image. That’s different from one-off use by a commercial entity in, say, a blog post. If in doubt, however, it is best to contact the content creator to confirm their intentions.
  • If you can’t find what you want for free use, or want to save time, stock image sites such as and are sources of highly professional imagery that can be downloaded and reused for only a few dollars. 
  • If you’re not sure about whether or not you should use an image or at least credit its source, here is an excellent infographic flowchart which might help you make your decision.

In a future post I’ll revisit Creative Commons licences in more detail. They are relevant to both imagery and writing.

In the mean time, make sure your writing is accompanied by legally obtained pictures – and make sure others in your organisation are doing likewise.

*Google’s image search has another neat trick up its sleeve: click the camera icon on the right of the search box on the image search front page. Upload an image and Google will find similar images for you – or other places where that image has been used. One use for this feature is in the tracking down of illegitimate use of copyrighted material.

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