• 3-minute read
  • 9th September 2019

How to Find Free Images for Commercial Use (Legally)

Every business needs images on its website, social media profiles, and marketing materials. But if you’ve found an image online, it could be copyrighted. And using copyrighted imagery without permission is illegal.

What is copyright exactly, though? And how can you find free images to use (legally) for commercial reasons? Here’s a rundown of what you should know.

What Is Copyright?

As a concept, copyright is quite straightforward: it protects authorship of a creative work. If you create an image, you are the “copyright holder.” And this means you have the right to use it however and wherever you like.

The famous 'copyright' symbol.
The famous “copyright” symbol.

When using an image you’ve found online, though, someone else may own the copyright. And if you use an image without permission from its owner, you could be accused of copyright infringement.

This is crucial to remember because, if you’re found guilty of infringement, you’ll be liable for damages. So while using an image without permission might not seem like a big deal, it could cost your company a lot of money. And because copyright is so important, we have two key rules:

  1. Assume images online are copyrighted unless you know otherwise.
  2. Never use a copyright image unless you have permission.

There are free images available for commercial use, though. You just need to know the kinds of images you can use for free and where to look.

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Public Domain vs. Creative Commons Images

The two main image types to look for are Creative Commons (CC) and public domain images. Both can be a great resource, but each has its own rules:

  • Public domain images are copyright free, so you can use and modify them however you like without paying anything. There are still some rules about using these images (e.g., if it is a photo of a famous person, you might want to read up on model release rights), but generally they are safe.
  • Creative Commons images are copyrighted works where the creator has given certain rights to people who wish to use them. There are several different CC licenses, each with different permissions attached (e.g., many CC images are free to use as long as you credit the creator). If you are using a CC image, make sure to check the license type.
Creative Commons licences.
Creative Commons licenses.

But where can you find these free images? We have a few suggestions…

Where to Find Free Images

There are many sources for finding free images you can use legally, including:

  • Google Image Search – The first stop for most people looking for images. Not every image on the Google results page is free to use, though, so you’ll need to set the usage rights filter to Creative Commons licenses.
  • Pixabay – A database of public domain images, most of which are free for commercial use. Similar sites include Pexels and Unsplash.
  • CC Search – CC search is a search engine dedicated to Creative Commons content, including images and videos. You can use these images according to the permissions specified under their licenses.
  • Flickr – A popular image hosting website. Most images on Flickr are “All Rights Reserved,” which means you have to seek permission from the creator(s) to use them. However, the “Advanced Search” option on Flickr allows you to look for images with a Creative Commons license.

And if you have copy that you’re using alongside your images, having it proofread by an expert will ensure it always has the right impact.

Comments (2)
Sarah Torres
16th November 2020 at 19:59
Hi! Thanks so much for this article. I am running into online public domain images which have a statement by the uploader that they may not be used commercially. Do they have that right with public domain images, or is it still legal to use them commercially because they are in the public domain. Thank you for your help! Sarah
    17th November 2020 at 11:25
    Hi, Sarah. We should start by clarifying that we're proofreaders, not copyright lawyers, so you might need to check elsewhere if you're looking for definitive legal advice! However, to the best of our understanding, there are no restrictions on how you use public domain images (i.e., in the USA in 2020, this typically means images that were first published or released before January 1, 1925). However, you can restrict commercial use on a Creative Commons license.

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