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If a picture paints a thousand words…

A picture paints a thousand words

It is so easy these days to get the perfect image you need for your website or to go on top of an article like this, isn’t it?  All you have to do is type the topic into Google (or another favourite search engine), click on images and select the one you need, right? 


As you are probably aware, creative works, such as photographs are protected by copyright. As the name suggests, this is the right of the owner to prevent copying of the work without permission they literally have the copying right.

At the moment, copyright has become a hot topic, with creators and image libraries objecting to their use of their copyright images to train Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning programs.

Copyright protection is free and automatic; the creator does not have to do anything special (like register it) to obtain copyright protection.  They also do not need to put the © symbol on it.  All they need to do is ‘fix it’ (i.e. write it down, draw it, record it to a disk, film it – or take a photograph) and as long there was some intellectual effort involved in creating the work and it is original, they have created a legally protectable copyright work.

So what happens if you do download a picture that you do not own and use it for your own purposes? That depends on the owner and how much they care.

At one end of the spectrum, nothing may happen, or the copyright owner may be pleased that you have ‘distributed’ their image more widely to the general public (this is more likely to be the case if you acknowledge the copyright owner and link to the original image).

Another scenario is that the owner writes to you and politely asks you to stop using the image (using a ‘cease and desist letter’) and if you comply no further action is taken.

At the other extreme, the copyright owner can insist that you pay a license fee, the value of which they set, and if you don’t pay up, they will prosecute.

This most extreme consequence does happen surprisingly often, so be warned.  This is especially likely if you have taken an image from one of the stock image libraries such as Getty, Shutterstock, iStock or BigStockPhoto without permission.  These websites use AI or employ bots which crawl the web looking for one of their images and then examine the metadata stored in the digital file to determine whether it is appropriately licensed.

If it isn’t, letters can be automatically generated and sent out to potential offenders demanding many thousands of pounds or legal action will be taken.  I have known clients who have had to pay this, for an image which could have been purchased for a few pounds.

If you have purchased a license to use such images, you should immediately make sure this license is in the name of the company that will be using the image/s, and that this license covers the purposes you want to use the image/s for.

Most licenses will limit use to certain activities, e.g. web not print, or the resolution you are allowed to use. For example, you have bought a license that covers use of a relatively low-resolution image; you can’t then use a higher resolution version of the same image. You are restricted to the terms of the license you have paid for!

If you are already using such pictures without a license, I would strongly advise that you remove them immediately and replace them with alternatives that you do have rights to use (see below for where to find such images) – or buy a license that covers the relevant images.


There are certain exceptions that do allow the use of a copyright protected image without permission of the copyright owner in UK law and a more general fair dealing exception in other countries, but these exceptions are pretty limited. 

In the UK, you can use a copyright image without seeking permission:

  1. to report on a current news story
  2. for parody or pastiche purposes
  3. for criticism or review
  4. and in some circumstances for private non-commercial use.

There are also educational and personal use exemptions in the UK; but these are highly restricted.

The definition of private and non-commercial use of images is quite narrow, though – if you are using a copyright image to promote your website or personal brand, then this is unlikely to be considered non-commercial use.

The safest thing to do is to avoid using photos in which you do not own the copyright or do not have a valid license or permission to use.

Finding images which you can use

As mentioned above, there are times when copyright owners are happy to share their images as long as certain conditions are respected (e.g. that the owner is attributed, that the image is not modified or that the image is not used for commercial use). 

Wikipedia hosts many images which are free to reuse; however, as with other sources, always check the license usage of an image on Wikipedia before assuming you can use it. While Wikipedia does have a massive bank of free images (see, usually available Creative Commons public domain license, images posted elsewhere on Wikipedia are not necessarily are free to use. Again, check the license!

Creative Commons is a system which allows copyright owners to voluntarily and selectively surrender some of their rights in the works that they own to promote wider dissemination and use. Under Creative Commons, the owner of a work grants a standard non-exclusive licence to the work that allows it to be used.  Importantly, this licence can retain some rights (e.g. use may be limited to non-commercial purposes, modification may be restricted, or attribution may be compulsory).   

The image at the top of this article is such an image and is provided under CC; it is free to use for personal and commercial use with no attribution required (as stated on this webpage

So where else do you find free images?

Firstly, there are many picture libraries that license images for free, including:

However, there will usually be conditions attached to using such images. For example, you usually can’t resell pictures for profit; some sites require attribution to the creator and/or site; some say you can’t modify or create derivative works using their images; some may restrict to non-commercial use.

The key points are: always check the license and the usage rights. Also, make sure the site in question is trustworthy.

Another option is Google Image search. After searching for an image, you will see a menu appear and if you select Tools and then Usage Rights, the search results will be filtered and only articles that Google believes are available for use are displayed. 

Once an image is found that is suitable, it is then important to follow the link and confirm that it has been correctly classified.


Once you have confirmed that the image you want is free to use, and whether there are any conditions to your using it, it is important to:

  1. follow the conditions imposed and,
  2. keep a record of the license/permissions that you found so that you can demonstrate why you thought it was OK to use the image.


Google search for images with no copyright restrictions


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