Rules for Using Images Online

So you’ve built this awesome website, or this awesome project and you need images so you go to Google and type in keywords related to what you need. We’ve all been there. But did you know if you take an image from Google or any other site for that matter, if it’s copyrighted you can be sued?

You’re probably wondering—well how am I supposed to know if it’s copyrighted? That’s what we aim to help you within this blog.

First, it’s important to understand the purpose of copyright laws. Copyright laws are “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution). Basically, if you created something amazing—you would not want someone else taking credit, right?

If you just have to have a particular image you find online, request permission from the copyright holder to use said image. In your request be sure to include what you are using it for and if you are given permission to use it, be sure to give source credit.

When do you not have to worry about copyright issues? If you are using public domain images, which are images that can be modified and may be used freely for any application. These are images that have been uploaded by public users and have given consent for their images to be used. Exemptions to this would be if there is an identifiable person who appears in the image—you must have a model release form. Another exception is you cannot suggest endorsement of products or services by depicted people or organizations. For example, “you cannot use an image of NASA and place it adjacent to your product in a way that suggests NASA endorses or recommends the product” (

One of the biggest websites to find public domain images is Wikimedia Commons. “Most images used on Wikipedia are part of the Wikimedia Commons, a database of over 10 million freely usable media files, including public domain images. Recently, for example, the Russian International News Agency has donated 100 historical photographs from their archives. Media files can be surfed by topic, location, type, author, license, and source. Each of these categories has subcategories, to refine the search.”(Wikimedia).

Another alternative to copyrighted images is Flickr. Within Flickr you can use the advanced search feature and search for photos with a Creative Commons license that allows you to use the content commercially and/or modify, adapt, or build upon the content. If the original creator’s name appears on the photos, it is still proper etiquette to give source credit.

You can also use Google Search option “Search Tools” > “Usage Rights” > and from here select a number of options for reuse such as “labeled for reuse with modification”, “labeled for reuse”, “labeled for noncommercial reuse”, and more.

Understanding the rules of Copyrighted Images can be confusing. It’s best to be safe—use a public domain image site, a stock image site, or get written permission from the copyright holder before using images found online. Below is a chart from that might help you understand a little bit more.

copyright laws

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