How Do I Know, If a Free Image is Legal to Use or Not? This is Your Ultimate Guide…

August 18, 2022

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  We've curated the best   images for you.

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  Unlimited use from $23   per month.

In recent years, we’ve seen the rise of platforms that offer free, use-for-anything, even-commercial-purposes stock photos. Services like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay are making it seem like we’ve entered a golden age of visual content. Just search for it, download it, and use them privately or professionally. Right?

As these sites have grown and millions of people and businesses have used their services, we’ve started to see that that promise might not be exactly what it seems. Some users have received unexpected cease-and-desist warnings or notices of copyright infringement for their use of images that they thought we completely free (for use).

In this article, we’ll provide you with a convenient checklist you can follow to ensure that those lovely images you’ve found really are free to use as you like.

What’s the deal? I thought free meant free?

Not quite, as it turns out. There are a couple of issues here and the first one is that there are several sets of rights involved when it comes to an image. Most people think that the photographer snaps an image, edits it, and provides it for sale because it’s their creation and they therefore have all the rights to it. That’s not always the case.

Other people and companies also have rights to certain things that may appear in stock photos. Model rights are one example. Others include property rights, trademarks, and copyrights. So what does that have to do with your free images? When a photographer uploads their images to a free stock photo platform like Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay, or StockSnap, they have to ensure that all of these rights issues are properly resolved, right? Technically, yes. But in practice, that may not be the case. Under their user agreements, these sites insist on this assurance, but the problem is that they don’t seem to check to see that everything was done correctly. And how could they? With the volume of images being uploaded to their sites, there’s simply no way they could verify that all the images have obtained the proper releases. And when it’s discovered that the creators didn’t have them, they’re definitely not going to step in and shield their users from the resulting litigation and damages.

Tablet showing unsplash search

This is just one example of what can go wrong with using free images. We could walk you through a few more, but hey, you probably got your stock photos from that free platform precisely because you didn’t want to have to become an expert in image licensing, right? We get it. So let’s look at the simple checklist that will help you make sure those free images really are free.

Make sure you can confidently check all these boxes before you use that free stock photo

  • I’m using the image for commercial purposes
  • The license for this image is current
  • I’m sure that all the necessary releases have been obtained
  • I’m sure that there are no copyright issues with the image
  • I’m sure that there are no trademarked items in the image

Seem confusing or like it’s a lot to do? It’s easier than you think. Let’s take them one by one.

I’m using the image for commercial purposes

If you’re using the image for personal reasons, there’s no need to go through the checklist at all. You’re free to use it as such. But how do you know for sure if what you’re doing counts is personal or commercial use?

Well, it’s relatively simple. Generally speaking, it’s safer to assume that you’re using it for commercial purposes, as this is usually the case. Any activity that promotes a product or service will fall into the category of commercial use. There’s no clear definition of what constitutes commercial use but use your best judgment: If you’re using the image on your business site, using it for content that’s ultimately meant to promote your business, or in another way that is meant to lead to some sort of financial transaction, it’s commercial use.

So, unless this is going on your bedroom wall or you’re framing it as a present, go ahead and check this box.

Laptop with Pixels search window open

The license for this image is current

Now that you’ve determined that the image is for commercial use, it’s time to see whether its license is still current.

Sometimes it’s not easy to know where an image really came from and whether or not the license is still active. You may be asking why a photo may lose its active license status. Well, quite simply, a photographer is free to retract that permission at any time. It’s your responsibility to ensure that the images you’re using are currently available for free use. Luckily, it’s not very hard to do that.

For this, it’s important to know where the stock photo originated. Many free stock photo platforms that source their images from other stock photo platforms will mark that on the image’s page. Follow that link and ensure that the license is still active on the original site. Be aware that you may follow that link to a page that links to another. Check the dates and do your best to ensure that you’ve found the original. If you can’t, it’s probably best to use a different image.

You may also be able to sort this out by right-clicking on the image and selecting “Search Google for Image”, or you can download the image and upload it directly in Google Images and search there. You’ll see a list of which stock photo platforms are using the image and you can trace it that way.

That may seem like a lot of work, but it’s usually pretty quick and allows you to be sure that the license is still active.

Tip: Once you’ve found where it was originally uploaded, bookmark that page and check back periodically to make sure the license remains active.

Selecting images on laptop

I’m sure that all the necessary releases have been obtained

As we touched on briefly at the beginning, you need to be sure that all the necessary releases have been obtained for any image you use commercially.

Remember that although the photographer must do this when they upload the photo, there’s no guarantee that they did, nor is there any guarantee that the platform double-checked it. So, let’s go over the two kinds of releases and how to verify them.

Model release:

This is pretty easy. If want to use a photo in which someone is identifiable, they need to have signed a model release before it can be used commercially. So, what does that mean?

If you see the person’s face or any other identifying characteristics (tattoos, birthmarks, etc.), they count as an identifiable model.

A tattooed girl

The cropping and zoom of the image can play a large role here. For instance, if a photo shows only a hand (mind the tattoos) then there’s no need for a model release as the subject can’t be identified.

A hand

This can also vary by location. Some countries don’t require model releases in certain circumstances if the main subject of the photo is not the model. For instance, in Germany, if you take a picture of the Brandenburg Gate and some people are visible in it, you don’t need to obtain releases from them as they’re not the subject of the photo.

As you can see, there’s definitely some room for interpretation here. The best advice is to use your better judgment. If you have doubts, use an image that you feel sure about.

Property release:

Taking a picture of someone’s private property – houses, cars, art, pets – whatever it may be, also requires a release by the photographer in order for the image to be used commercially. That includes private locations, such as stadiums, zoos, amusement parks, malls, stores, and any events that may occur in those spaces.

Now, this may seem like a photographer technically needs a release for everything. And technically, they kind of do. But again, there’s quite a bit of room for interpretation here, and in all honesty, collecting property releases for everything in every image borders on impracticality. Unless we’re talking about nature photographers high in the mountains or under the sea, inevitably there will be something that someone own’s in their images.

Most photographers don’t obtain property releases for everything in their photos as this would be extremely time-consuming. The fact is that legal cases for property release infringements are exceedingly rare. Nevertheless, there are legal grounds for prosecuting the use of images that haven’t obtained the release.

Again, use your best judgment here. Is the property being portrayed in a negative way? Is it the main subject of the image? Is the property owned by anyone in direct competition with your business or brand? Is it the only property in the image (like a castle or inside a mall)? If it’s a picture on a street, you’re probably ok. But more famous locations or businesses may be more picky about their location being used.

Verifying releases:

Unfortunately, most stock photo websites do not explicitly state if these releases have been acquired or not. Generally speaking, it’s part of their terms and services that these things need to be acquired before the photo is uploaded. But as we’ve mentioned, there’s no guarantee that they’ve done that.

If you find a photo that you’d really like to use and you’re nervous about releases, you might be able to contact the photographer directly and ask if the releases were obtained. Always do this in written form so that it can be verified later should any problems arise.

I’m sure that there are no copyright issues with the image

While the image’s copyright is revoked when the photographer uploads the image to a free image platform, there may still be elements in the image that are copyrighted.

For instance, if the image contains written text that’s part of a copyrighted work, that copyright also applies when using the image. Other examples include posters or other images. As with the previously discussed model releases, you have to be able to recognize the work.

Wall with various posters

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to works in the image that are out of copyright and have entered the public domain. Such as Michelangelo’s David:

Michelangelo’s David

I’m sure that there are no trademarked items in the image

Many people don’t seem to be entirely clear on what a trademark actually is. It’s defined as ‘a symbol, word, or words legally registered or established by use as representing a company or product’. Think about the McDonald’s arches, the Nike swoosh, or the Olympic rings. These are some famous examples. Even some locations are trademarked, such as the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower. So what does that mean?

It means that in order to include them in a stock photo, the photographer needs to obtain express permission to order to use them for commercial purposes. And you need to ensure that the permission has been granted before you use the image.

Companies and organizations are often concerned with this because they lend their trademarks to things they support, often for a fee. When others use it, it may seem like they’re supporting or endorsing what’s in the image or the person or business who has used it.

Be sure that your chosen stock image doesn’t contain trademarks. Remember that these can appear on products in the image, such as electronics and clothing. Another option is to digitally remove anything that could identify the trademark, assuming you have the rights to do so.

You’re all done! Good to go.

It’s true that there are more free stock photo platforms than ever and for the most part, that’s a good thing. People have more access to visuals which allows them to create the website and advertising materials that can launch their products and brands to success.

Just remember that even when things are free, the buck still stops with someone. So be sure to use these images responsibly and correctly so they can drive your business instead of holding it back.

The cost of copyright infringement varies wildly from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands. Don’t waste your precious time and resources fighting a legal battle over images that were meant to boost your business. Know your obligations and requirements beforehand.

Happy photo hunting!

About the author

Jonathan Løw is the co-founder of JumpStoryHe is one of Denmark’s most well-known entrepreneurs and business authors. He has been nominated as Entrepreneur of the Year and is amongst Denmark’s 100 most promising leaders according to a major Danish business newspaper. In addition to being a serial entrepreneur, Jonathan Løw is the former Head of Marketing at the KaosPilots – named Top 10 most innovative business schools in the world by FastCompany. He is also former Startup-Advisor and Investor at Accelerace – the leading investment fund for startups in Denmark.

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