Can I Use a Photo I Found Online?

When in doubt, no.

You wouldn’t pull a photo off National Geographic’s Website to promote your own businessBut what about an image you find on Flickr, Instagram or Pinterest? The answer is still no…with some exceptions. And yet it’s easy to assume that freely shared images online are yours for the taking.

If you are using images pulled from the Internet without attribution or permission, there are two good reasons to stop the practice.

  • Violating a creator’s rights, no matter who they are, is bad business. Flipping that around, providing an attribution and possibly a link (source, creator’s name, image title) demonstrates your generosity and respect for a creator’s work. And you’ll help educate others on proper image use.
  • You don’t want to damage your reputation if the author of the image stumbles upon your Instagram feed. They might simply ask you to remove the image, or worse.

An artist friend had been posting montages of her own work along with a stunning image from another source. Her work stands on its own, but it was easy to see how powerful these juxtapositions were in making her work more desirable, not to mention helping define her brand. I was fairly certain these photos were not her own. Given her ever-growing audience, I suspected she wouldn’t knowingly open herself up to complaints about wrongful use of images.

I saw an opportunity to raise the issue when a follower of hers was curious about the source of a particular image. As I suspected, my friend assumed images on social media were fair game. One thing that muddies the waters is our ability, for example, to Pin an image from a site to our own Pinterest boards. Context matters, and it’s understood that you’re not pretending you’re the creator of the image….well, let’s hope so.

Below are the safest ways to use images for your business, almost all without costing you a penny:

Use only Creative Commons images
Several sites contain images under Creative Commons (CC) license, such as Flickr. Creators offer up their work for public use and apply one of several options for CC licenses to their image. All require an attribution but some restrict manipulating the image. An attribution is a small price to pay for using a free image that helps your business!

Other public domain sites
Museums such as the Met created open access archives of thousands of public domain works that you can download and use. If you Google “creative commons museum images,” you’ll find links to many other archives of free images from museums and libraries.

Royalty-free images
Websites like Adobe Stock, ShutterStock, and many others, offer bundles such as 25 images for $25 (a steal), or a monthly or yearly subscription fee. You can also buy individual images. Find the right package to fit your frequency of use. Get more bang for your buck and use the same image on Instagram, in a mailer or on your website.

Use your own photographs
You might be surprised what you have in your own collection. Start saving appealing images that reflect brand into a folder that’s easy to pull from. (Hint: find a filter you like and let it become your signature look.)

Ask permission
If you find the perfect “all rights reserved” image, reach out to the author and ask permission to use it. You might be surprised.

Happy hunting.

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