writers resources / writers tips

Image Copyright Do’s and Don’ts

image copyrightsWhen I teach professional development classes, by far the topic that surprises attendees the most is the legal use of online images. And they’re not alone. On my blog, in educator forums, and in the virtual meetings I moderate, there is much confusion about what can be grabbed for free from online sites and what must be cited with a linkback, credit, author’s name, public domain reference, or specific permission from the creator. When I receive guest posts that include pictures, many contributors tell me the photo can be used because they include the linkback.

That’s not always true. In fact, the answer to the question…

“What online images can I use?”

typically starts with…

It depends…

To try to understand this topic in a five-minute blog post or thirty-minute webinar is a prescription for failure. It is too big. Instead, I’ll cover only four main subtopics with a (very) quick overview and where you can find more resources to extend your learning.


In general terms, you must cite sources for:

  • facts not commonly known or accepted
  • exact words and/or unique phrase
  • reprints of diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • opinions that support research

Watch the online life of a photo posted by an unknowing student.

Digital privacy

Digital privacy is constantly under attack in a world where people post everything they do on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. 6 Degrees of Information reinforces how easy is it to find out about anyone by following the crumbs left during their online surfing. Next, watch Eduardo post pictures he considers innocent in Two Kinds of Stupid. One more: this video on Online Reputations.


Copyrights range from public domain—creative work that can be used without permission or notification—to intensely private—available only to view and usually on the host website.  Here’s a simple review of copyright law I use to start the discussion.

The law states that works of art created in the U.S. after January 1, 1978, are automatically protected by copyright once they are fixed in a tangible medium (like the Internet) BUT a single copy may be used for scholarly research (even if that’s a 2nd grade life cycle report) or in teaching or preparation to teach a class.

You can find out more through the video, ‘Copyright Explained’ .

‘Fair Use’ is why students and teachers can grab online images without obtaining permission from the creator. It allows for a single use for educational purposes–nothing more. For more on this topic (especially if you have children), watch A Fair(y) Use Tale.

If you don’t qualify for Fair Use and are looking for public domain images through Google, the screenshot below shows how to adjust your search parameters to find only freely-available, legal online images (in Google Images, click Tools>Usage Rights):

copyrights and images

The following sites provide mostly public domain images:

If you find an online image you like, figuring out if you can use it is often time-intensive but necessary. If you can’t find the copyright notice on the site that’s hosting the image, pick a different image. Here are two examples:

copyright pictures

The bottom one requires attribution—a linkback or credit–so I’ve provided it here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crazymandi/. It’s worth noting that most Flikr images require credit and/or a linkback.

Here’s a general collection of websites addressing copyrights and digital law that will help to address your specific areas of interest:

Make-your-own Graphics

A great way to avoid the worry surrounding the legal use of online images is to create your own. You can use software such as Paint, Photoshop, and GIMP, or an image creation tool like:

If these don’t work for you, here’s a list of websites or apps with lots more options.

–published first to Today’s Author

More on copyrights:

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and  Twenty-four DaysShe is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


137 thoughts on “Image Copyright Do’s and Don’ts

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  4. Lots of people here have said they use their own images to avoid problems. Right – now YOU own the copyright to those. What happens to them when they go out there in the wild? If you care, watermark your images with “copyright” and your name. That won’t stop the truely determined but it should make the honest majority stop and think.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Again, this is so helpful. I’m always in a twist when it comes to copyright issues. Thanks for the great links. They really do help. While I’ve been away, I filled my phone with images, thinking that I could use them without worrying. Now my phone’s on overload. 🙂 Great to be back and to visit your blog again.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Once again, I’m bookmarking this page. This is soooo helpful. I’ve been making FB posts for the launch of my new book and I’ve needed some images to go along with messages I post about expat life. I’ve been using Canva, but I can’t always find what I want. I’m going to explore these other sites!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks Jacqui, this is so timely. I am helping a non profit set up a new website and we had this very question pop up about one of the images we plan to use. So glad you provided resources and examples. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This is so helpful! I do try to use my own photos now, but sometimes that just doesn’t fit with my material. I never knew about the ‘tools’ and then ‘reuse’ button on google images. That helps a lot! And when I do use a google image, I always put the link under my blog post’s title and ‘description.’

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. Extremely helpful information Jacqui. My co-blogger, Peggy, and I try to use as many of our own drawings and photos as possible but it’s extremely time-consuming and we do go to the web.
    Thanks so much for the list of sites and tools for creating one’s own work. We’ve been researching it but it’s very overwhelming as all we want is a simple tool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Simple is an excellent goal. Me too. Even though I’m pretty good with PhotoShop, I often default to something much simpler (Canva is a current favorite) because I can get in and out in under five minutes.


  14. A wonderfully clear and explanatory article on a subject that baffles many of us! I’m slowly getting used to what is allowed and not but this is a great summary to bookmark. I often use my own photos or pixaby as the images are terrific and I also feel safe regarding copyright.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most people don’t believe this stuff until they’ve seen it a few times so don’t be surprised if they ignore it! I’ve had parents of students come see me, after I shared this sort of lesson with students, and flat out disagreed. Sigh.


  15. Thanks for this overview! Quick question, (if you know offhand- otherwise I can research more 🙂 ) I had the impression from a cursory read-through that if an image has a ‘creative commons’ license (which you can filter for in image searches through Word docs) it is acceptable to reproduce the image as long as it’s not altered and not for profit- is this correct in your experience, or have I oversimplified?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s actually not legal. That’s their notification that you must purchase (or follow their rules which usually includes money). I’ve seen people do this and I suppose it is their way of providing credit. If you visit the site (like Shutterstock or Deposit Photos), you’ll see they require money for their images.


  16. Important post Jacqui. I’ve written numerous posts on copyright and image use. I got caught in a web with LLC right a few years ago and shared that experience too. Suffice it to say, I only use very few sites now, my favorite is PIxabay, where there are no attributions and licence CC0, no fears. Once bitten. twice shy, lol. 🙂 Oh, and fyi, there’s a site where you can load an image and find out who owns it – http://www.tineye.com 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • You and I are on exactly the same wavelength, Deb. Love Tineye. Images.google.com is similar. Somewhere in my archives I have a site where you can drop a photo and see how it’s been changed. Interesting.


  17. Great information as always. I mostly either use my own photos or Pixabay. A few images I’ve bought from Shutterstock. I think when most people start out online, they don’t realize you can’t just use any image out there. I know I didn’t at first.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Great post, Jacqui. I was pretty clueless about this when I started blogging. Now, I’m very careful. Thanks for the resources – those are helpful. I love Pixabay and use it almost exclusively, but if I’m stuck, I often rely on Flickr creative commons because they make copyright and use parameters so easy to understand. Staying within copyright laws isn’t that hard once we get the hang of it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Jacqui, this is such an excellent and timely article. I really appreciate the info. I’ve been accessing images as you’ve suggested here, and only using images I’m pretty sure are “free to use.” Of course, that’s a loosey goosey term. I attribute in some way – artists deserve credit for their work. A very helpful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I rarely use pictures that I haven’t personally taken, but I always check the copyrights/permissions. A couple of weeks ago I had a first time ever request come in from my web page – a person had found one of my vacation photos and wanted to use it a project they were doing. After looking at the picture I realized my wife had taken it, which lead to an interesting conversation that started something like, “Heather, you know that picture you took? Well …”

    Liked by 1 person

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