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.
This entry was posted in Publishing and Self Publishing, The Business of Writing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

66 Responses to Get the Scoop on Fair Image Usage

  1. Pingback: All About Using Images – On a Darkling Whim

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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. 🙂

  8. Mart Ramirez says:

    Excellent post. Thank you so much!

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  12. Irene says:

    This is very useful and informative. i will definitely bookmark it for future reference. Thanks for sharing.

    I have shared photos from Pinterest on Facebook many times in the past. Now I am not sure if this does not have copyright implication. Also used pictures from Google image search on my blog a couple of times with credit to the source. What is the best way to deal with this? Take down the pictures?

    I have since played safe by purchasing pictures from the commercial sites like Dreamstime or using pictures I took myself.

  13. It’s always great to brush up on this subject.

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  15. Thanks for the great tips Doug. X

  16. Becca Barray says:

    Image use can be a tricky subject for bloggers and this is a great explanation of the Creative Commons license types. I just want to comment on the assumption of CC BY-NC-ND for images not clearly marked.

    “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.”

    This may be ‘a common etiquette employed on the web’ but it is still not strictly legal. If the license is not defined, then you should assume that all rights are reserved and contact the owner of the image for permission before using it in any way. Simply adding a link and attribution does not protect you from being sued if the owner objects to your use.
    That being said, most photographers/artists would probably be satisfied with attribution and a link, but as evidenced with Roni Loren’s extreme situation, there are those out there who would not, so be careful. If you really want to protect yourself from any kind of lawsuit, make 100% sure that the image is listed with a CC license for your intended use, or contact the owner.

    Thanks for spreading the word about internet image use, Doug.

  17. Jovanna says:

    This is why I only use pictures I created myself or ones I know are not copyrighted in anyway (always with thorough research). I have been creating my own stock photos and images. Since I don’t have a picture creating, photo-editing program, I use Microsoft Powerpoint. Does what I want it to and if something needs specific editing, Paint isn’t so bad as it used to be these days – as long as no one looks too closely.

    • You can’t go wrong with using your own art, Jovanna. I’m doing that more and more and replacing my own questionable images with it. Using your own art also steers clear of the non-commercial conundrum with CC works.

  18. Thanks for the information. I’ll save it to refer to in the future.

  19. A very informative post. I’ve run across a few folks who seem to believe that putting “Courtesy of …..” will suffice. I tell them that may be OK, but only if they get permission from the artist/photograph/source.

  20. Really helpful post. Thanks for all this useful information.

  21. J.R.Barker says:

    I used to do this, then I realised the error of my ways and changed them. However I have become a bit lazy in using images :/

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  23. What a great post. I see folks (writers) using images without permission all the time. From now on, I’ll refer them to this post. It’s so easy to take a pic from my phone. And it belongs to me! Thank you for your informative and vital words. 🙂

  24. S.E. Hood says:

    A very timely post for me, but I was wondering: does this apply to downloading images from free stock photo sites? It makes sense to get permission and link back to the original site if you find the image on Google or social media, but I guess I just figured they were free for the taking as long as they came from a site like At any rate, thanks for such an informative post. I’ve only recently started using images in my blog, and I’m glad I read this before I encountered any problems!

  25. Julie Musil says:

    I read that same post by Roni Loren and it changed my ways. This is a great breakdown of what we can and can’t use. Someone else turned me on to morgue file.

  26. Deb says:

    Thanks for this! I don’t use a lot of images…hmmm….don’t use any other than book covers. One of the reasons is I am still trying to get a handle on CC and how to know how to even use that. So, I appreciate the list of the different CC attributions!

  27. Cindy Huff says:

    This was helpful yet, still confusing. I tend toward using my own photos (really my husbands) as my first go to. There are a few websites that do offer free images. Getty is one of those. Even so I believe there are some restrictions. What is your take on using an image from some else’s blog or website?

  28. I love this post. As I mentioned, I’ve gotten really careful about using the right images and posting attributions, but I realize now that it’s a good idea to link directly to the source. Thanks for the simple explanation of this topic, Doug!

  29. DT Krippene says:

    Good advice, and in need of repeating every so often for those who didn’t get the message. Question came up recently, is when someone attributes a pic from Pinterest (which usually, but not always, leads to originator’s site). What’s your sage advice on the use of Pinterest in blogs, etc?

    • Ha ha, DT. “Sage” advice?! There’s a sage here. 🙂 Pinterest isn’t a ‘source’. Neither is saying ‘Found on twitter’. I always search the picture using Google Images to find the original artist.

  30. C. Lee McKenzie says:

    This has cleared up so much for me. I always site my source or give direct credit for images I use, but I realize I may not be totally in the right.

    Thanks for the detailed explanation.

  31. Thanks, Doug. I’ve devolved to doing your suggestion of captioning my image with the site I took it from and if it is the originator individual site (vs. a public info site, or site where it is clear the image did not begin there) I comment and say I’d like to use the image in an upcoming post leaving my contact info. Also I am not yet selling anything–except myself I guess, so that probably helps.

    Thanks for the reminder, Angela.

    • Hi, Kim! It’s really easy to get in the habit of just scraping images. Attributing and letting the artist know is the *minimum*. The only way to be sure is to use your own art. Of course, I need to be more consistent heeding my own advice. 🙂

  32. Anisa says:

    Hey Doug,

    I love this article. It’s one of my favourites by you. Very informative and helps to make sense of a sometimes complicated subject. Thanks for writing it and thanks to Writers Helping Writers for posting it!


  33. Lori Schafer says:

    Thank you, Doug, for the clear explanation, and Angela, for the very useful links. What’s your opinion on image usage in arenas such as Twitter? If I feature an image on my blog, I’m delighted to attribute it to the artist and link to their profile or website. But on Twitter, I don’t necessarily have space for all that – how would you handle that type of situation?

    • Hi Lori! Tweeting a link to a blog post and site that contains images *should* be okay, but wow, how deep does this rabbit hole go? Is Twitter any different from Facebook?

  34. Karen Payton Holt says:

    This is the most comprehensive and clearly set out piece on using ‘images’ to enhance your writing that I have read, and an enjoyable one too. Thank you, Doug.
    The extra links gained by way of the comments are very welcome too.

  35. Great article, and very helpful to anyone who is planning on using images to enhance their blogs (or any other writing for that matter).

  36. Thanks so much for spelling out the differences, Doug! And of course it’s important to remember that “common etiquette” may not be enough as Roni Loren found out, so always best to seek out CC licensed works.

    A few places I have found very helpful to find CC licensed works are:

    Photo Pin: (SUPER handy!)

    W.A.N.A. Commons: (W.A.N.A. Tribe, a supportive social community for writers and artists, has a special group on Flickr where images are posted for blog use, but take care to read the licensing in case someone has posted there not understanding what the group is about)

    And I was recently told Pixabay has free to use images:

    Someone who does the “do it yourself” pictures to go with posts is M J Bush at Writing Geekery: she simply adds a title or quote to a free to use image–smart!

  37. :Donna Marie says:

    I’ve read about all this before, BUT—this is THE most detailed, comprehensive explanation I’ve seen yet. Thank you SO much for your definitions of the Creative Commons acronyms. I didn’t even know what they were or meant!

    My blogs are still pre-launch, but I HAVE actually done a few posts for future use, and in one I did hunt down the source to get permission—which they were happy to do—, but it does take time. The other images I’ve chosen I’ve given credit for and linked to OR, if it’s a book cover, link to where the book can be purchased. None of this has been posted yet, so none of it is “out there,” but now I’m wondering whether it’s enough, if an image is found on Wikipedia, if linking to it is enough : /

    Thanks so much for this extremely helpful information, Doug 😀

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