Get the Scoop on Fair Image Usage

Since I started blogging, one of the most confusing areas for me has been in the area of image usage. I started out snatching up images, willy-nilly, like  free samples at Costco. Then Roni Loren bravely shared her story, and frankly, it scared the poo out of me. Since then, I’ve made a point to educate myself in this area. I know this can be a sticky area for everyone so I’m happy to have Doug Langille here today from Writer’s Carnival to shed a little extra light on the issue…


When it comes to writing stuff on the internet, awesome art and photography are truly important. A well-chosen picture can greatly enhance the stickiness and ‘shareaucity’ of a post. Text-based Facebook posts often go ignored. You can’t even post to Pinterest without a cool image.

No problem, you say. Pics on the Interweb are free, so I’ll just go download some LOL cats and Darth Vader memes.


This is a common misconception, but ignorance won’t alleviate you from being publicly chastised or even sued for using a copyrighted picture without taking the proper steps. If you’re interested in sprucing up your Internet writing pieces without experiencing legal backlash, here are some tips and guidelines.

One easy solution to this problem is to use something you’ve created yourself. Most of us suck pretty bad at drawing, but taking a photo with your phone and cropping it is surprisingly effective. It really should be your first option. If you’re unsure about the logistics of taking your own pictures, check out these posts on The Basics of Photography: The Complete Guide and Taking Better Pictures with your Smartphone Camera.

You could also pay a fee for access to a stock photography site. That’s what professional marketers and for-profit enterprises do. You’re rich, right, Mister Moneybags?

Either way, if you’d rather use someone else’s images, then you’ll need to know a few things about how copyright works on the Internet.

First off, copyright is automatic in most countries; you don’t even have to put on a copyright stamp. As a result, if you were to go to Google Images and look for art, you’ll have absolutely no trouble finding pictures (the majority of which are copyrighted) that you might be tempted to use. Many people do. However, this is wrong.

One way to avoid using someone else’s work inappropriately is to hunt down the artist and ask permission to use the work. Some artists want compensation, others just want attribution. It’s confusingly inconsistent.

Creative Commons has made some very good strides at plain-language licensing. They offer 6 different licenses for artists to use:

  • CC BY: Attribution (linking to the artist and/or work, do what you like with it)
  • CC BY-SA: Attribution, ShareAlike (you must license your derived work the same)
  • CC BY-NC: Attribution, Non-Commercial (modify as needed, can’t be used for commercial purposes)
  • CC BY-ND: Attribution, No-Derivatives (can’t alter the work, must be kept whole)
  • CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution, Non-Commercial, ShareAlike
  • CC BY-NC-ND: Attribution, Non-Commercial, No-Derivatives

Here’s the sticky-wicket: the definition of ‘Non-Commercial’ is somewhat loosely defined and left to the artist’s discretion. Generally speaking, if you’re making money off your work directly or indirectly, then it’s commercial.

How it plays out is that:

  • For a blog, you can often get away with using images tagged CC BY-NC (biggest selection).
  • If you are selling something, then you should aim for CC-BY.
  • If you have ads on your site, this puts you in a gray area. You may opt for CC-BY to be 100% clean.
  • If you are sourcing images for a printed book, then the NC licensed works are off-limits.

Clear as mud? Cool.

Now, not every image on the Internet has a CC license. In fact, most don’t. Individual artists may have different license models. The majority of images have nothing defined, but remember that copyright is assumed and using work without permission puts you at risk. The number of unattributed images shared on Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest is alarming.

A common etiquette employed on the web is that, if the license is not defined, you can use the guidelines of CC BY-NC-ND: use it unmodified for non-commercial purposes and provide a link to the artist’s site. Another nicety is to comment on the their site that you used their work and provide the link to where you did. Most times, the artist is happy for the exposure. If not, you don’t use it. Simple as that.

Note also that ignorance is no excuse. It’s rarely the case that ‘Artist Unknown’ is acceptable. Google provides a facility where you can upload an image and search Google for the source. Go to and click the little gray camera that says ‘search by image’.  It’s worth that extra little step.

Here’s some other sites where you can find properly licensed art and photography:

  • Creative Commons has a handy tool.
  • Finding images on Flickr is easy (just click here or here).
  • Sadly, searching DeviantArt for CC-BY is hard. Gotta use Google.
  • You can search all of Google.

Finding images isn’t the problem; there are plenty of them out there. It’s all a matter of finding the ones that are available to the public and including the appropriate attribution. Hopefully you’ve got some new tips now to help with the confusion.

doug-bio-picBio: Doug Langille is a team member at Writer’s Carnival, an on-line community where writers can post original stories/poetry and review each other’s work. It’s a place for them to connect and share in their love of all types of creative writing from poetry to novels, be it through posting for feedback, forums, group discussions or status updates.


*Photo courtesy of @ Creative Commons


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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66 Responses to Get the Scoop on Fair Image Usage

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  5. Annalie Buscarino says:

    Great job Doug! Love the humor you incorporate into everything you write. WC proud!

  6. Pingback: All About Using Images | Doug Langille

  7. Aleta Brooks says:

    Thank you for this post. Trying to figure out what images are available to use and under what circumstances has been a chore. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this post. Clear, concise, and VERY helpful. 🙂

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