Copyright and Free, Royalty-Free Resources… again!

Dripping data? (CD image by Matthew Bowden, UK)Many people — perhaps most people online today — aren’t aware of how copyright laws apply to what’s on the Internet.

I know no one who deliberately breaks copyright laws.  They’re just misinformed, or misguided by how they see copyright laws ignored online.

Often, people believe that anything online is okay to borrow, at least for personal or one-time use.  After all, everyone else is doing that… right?

I understand. Until you’re caught, there’s probably no reason to think twice about using someone else’s images, especially if those images aren’t clearly marked with a copyright symbol.

So, I don’t want anyone to feel as if I’m pointing a finger.  I’m not.  I deal with this subject constantly, and I’m very aware of how popular misunderstandings are when it comes to copyright law.


I’m not an attorney.  My interpretations of the law are my own opinions, not legal advice.  To get adequate legal advice, you’ll need to speak with an attorney that deals in trademark and copyright law.

However, even judges don’t seem to agree on copyright law.  How harshly you’re treated, if caught, can vary from one courtroom to the next.


I’m an artist.  Since the mid-1990s, when I created my first website — gosh, was that really over 15 years ago? — my own images have been stolen.  The tragedy is, I usually give permission when someone asks, first.  I was thrilled when one of my original photos was used for a record album cover; the band asked permission and I gave it freely.

When I find someone using one of my illustrations illegally, I approach them directly.  Most people quickly (and apologetically) remove the image from their websites.

However, a few balk.  They insist they bought the image from someone else, as part of a package, so they think the image is in the public domain now.  Or they found the image at Flickr.  Or something.

Then I have to contact the person’s website hosting service, and the usual result has been: The hosting service shuts down every website that person has.  They’re banned.  Nobody’s happy, and it didn’t have to conclude that way.

I’ve written several popular articles about copyright, the “three stroke” myth, and how copyright law affects artists.  Some of that information may apply to you.  My original article is at , along with several other copyright-related articles.

I also teach artists, including photographers, how to protect their images so they can prove they’re the original creators of the respective works.

It’s a simple technique: I remove about 1/2 inch on at least two sides of the original image, before I post it online.  When the hosting service asks me to prove it’s my original graphic, I can show them the larger version that has never appeared online. So far, that’s always worked for me and for my students.

Others use techniques such as digital watermarking:


Okay, maybe you shrug off copyright laws.  If you don’t know anyone who’s been caught “borrowing” images, and you don’t know the anguish of having your own work stolen, maybe it’s no big deal.

However, there is new software in production — I’ve heard that it’s in beta right now — and it’s designed to identify images being used illegally online.  Art museums facing budget crunches are especially interested in using this technology to protect their images, online.

As it was explained to me: The basic technology is similar to how cameras “know” where faces are in the photos, and always make sure they’re in focus.  Or, software that now replaces unattractive faces in family photos, and instantly fills in with a better face (from another photo) in the same size & location.  (I’m sure you’ve seen the ads on TV.)

Similar software recognizes distinctive elements in your original graphics and — through Google Images, Flickr, Facebook, etc. — scours the Internet looking for any matches.  Once you’re caught by someone who has deep pockets or an attorney with whiplash mentality… heaven help you.

We’re fast approaching a time when you’re playing a dangerous game if you’re using photos or other artwork without permission.


There is no reason to use illegal images in any product, including website design.

There are many great, public domain images online.  Pre-1923 images are generally (but not always) safe to use.  You can find them online; Wikipedia often features gorgeous public domain images by famous artists such as John William Waterhouse.

Many (but not all) works on the United States’ government website are in the public domain.

Some modern-day graphic artists & photographers have released some or all of their rights.  Some websites include modern, public domain photos, such as

You can also find great, legal images — with various licenses to use them — via Creative Commons:

There are many great resources for free, completely legal, royalty-free images.  (Remember: The images are still copyrighted. You’re simply given permission to use the images without paying a fee.)

Stock.xchng is one of my favorites.  Just be sure to search with “Restricted OK” set to “NO.”

Morgue File (not what it sounds like), also called MFile, is another great resource.  Like Stock.xchng, be sure to check the licensing terms for each image.

Most free, royalty-free websites also offer higher-quality images for a fee.  The fee can be as low as $1 with unlimited use rights, and that often depends on the size of the image you want (for online or print use) and whether you’ll be reproducing it on tee-shirts, coffee mugs, etc.

Or, if you found an image — like one of mine — through an image scraper or photo-sharing site, you can find the owner by doing an image search at Google.  Free browser plugins like Search by Image for Google make it right-click easy.  Then, ask the owner for permission to use the image in your project.  Many of us are happy to say yes.

The best idea of all?  Take your own photos.  Practice makes perfect (or at least good enough), you don’t need to get a photography degree… though you could.  And, once you’re comfortable with your camera, consider adding your photos to sites like and earn money from them.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve been using images without permission. 99% of the people I teach or consult for have no idea they’ve been doing anything wrong. This includes respected artists including photographers and illustrators.

What’s important is to use legal images as much as you can, starting right away.  The Internet is always changing, and copyright law is becoming a far greater issue across the online community.

Besides, there is no reason to copy others’ graphics without permission.  There are many wonderful, free resources for great images.  Use them instead.


Want to reprint this?  You can.  It’s free.  This work by Aisling D’Art is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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