There is a common misconception that any image found ‘in the public domain’, (those you can find online) is free for you to use. This is incorrect and using an image that you find on Google on your website, marketing material or social media is not legal.

If you did not take the photo, create the graphic or buy a licence to use it, then it doesn’t belong to you.

Who Owns the Copyright to an Image?

The person who takes the picture, “the creator” is usually the owner of the copyright. However, there are some circumstances where this may not be the case:

  • If the image was taken before 1989
  • If the copyright term has expired
  • If the image was taken as part of the creators employment
  • If the image was set up and arranged by the photographer but they didn’t actually press the trigger (the assistant who snapped the shot would not own the copyright)

Do not take any of the above exemptions for granted, image copyright can be very complex and each case must be investigated individually to be sure of the rights to use it.

Licenced Images and Stock Libraries

Photographers and stock libraries allow use of their images by selling a licence to use them. This enables the purchaser to legally use the image. The price will vary dramatically depending on the subject matter, the photographer and the terms of use. For example buying the licence to use an image across a national marketing campaign to appear on TV and bill boards will undoubtedly be more expensive than buying a stock image to use low resolution on your blog page.

When using stock libraries be certain of the terms of use on an image. You may only be buying the licence for a year, or perhaps only to use on one format for a limited print run. Also do NOT be tempted to download the ‘comp’ image and photoshop the watermark off it. This would be seen as blatant theft of an image with dire consequences.

What is a Royalty Free Image and can I use it freely?

A royalty free image is most likely an image you would find on a stock library where you would pay a one off agreed fee for its use. Don’t be fooled by the terminology ‘free’, you still need to pay for these images to use them.

Can I use the Picture if I Credit the Owner?

You may be thinking that if an image you find on the web somewhere that is not on a stock library, may be fine to use if you credit the photographer. This is another common misconception, you must not assume that you can do this, you need to seek permission to use the picture. The owner may well say that you can use it if you credit them or add a link back to their website, in which case you have been granted permission.

Manufacturers Product Images for Ecommerce Websites

If you are selling products online and want to use the images from the manufacturer, it is still a requirement to gain their permission. They probably have many resellers of their products and will be used to sending images out for their promotion. Beware of doing a google image search for your product and downloading one of them to use. It may well be a competitors own image of the product and therefore not yours to use. For ecommerce I would always suggest creating your own images and videos of your products to give your website some individuality where you can.

Can I use a product image if I am promoting or reviewing it?

So surely if I am promoting a product, the brand or manufacturer should be pleased? Most likely this type of use would go unchallenged, unless you were portraying the product or company in a bad light. Chances are this use could be seen as a fair use, but are the possible ramifications worth it if the company decided they didn’t like it?

Can I use Images from Social Media?

Lines around this may seem a bit fuzzy, on the one hand, an image that is posted on a social media channel may seem like it is posted in order to be shared or redistributed. But if the intent of use is changed, you will be breaching someone’s personal rights.

All social media channels now have ‘embed’ functions on their content or images. If they are used correctly in line with the terms and conditions, you have permission to use the image. The embed functions will not appear on people’s private posts, only if the images are ‘public’.

Common Pitfalls of Image Use

Be aware too that if you find an image you want to use online and gain permission from the blogger or website owner to use it, they may not actually own it themselves. Here are a couple of examples to highlight this:

  • An employee from a manufacturing company inadvertently sent a Getty lifestyle picture to a distributor along with some requested product images. The recipient used the images in good faith on their website, believing they had gained the permissions to use them. Before long, Getty Images, contacted them with a rather large bill for using their picture without having bought a licence.
  • An inexperienced PR assistant from an agency sent a photographer’s images of an event they had organised to the local council for use in some promotional material. The PR assistant had no right to do this as the copyright belonged to the photographer. The photographer was then within his rights to demand payment for the unsolicited use of his image.

What are the Consequences of Breaching Copyright on an Image?

If someone infringes the copyright on an image, the owner or licence holder will in most cases ask the user to buy a licence, arrange a fee and no further action will be taken. This usually ends up being more expensive than if you had bought the licence legitimately before you used the image.

However, in some cases legal action may be taken and you may be asked to attend a court hearing. Court cases will be expensive as you will not only have to pay for the image but also the legal expenses of both parties. There may also be other financial compensation to pay for copyright infringement.

Other instances of infringement may result in you having to take your webpage down or remove the image whilst still paying an infringement fine.


If in doubt, don’t risk it!! Assume the image is copyrighted and you will need to acquire the correct permissions to use the image. If you have any questions or would like advice about images on your website, or any aspect of your online presence,  give us a call on 01793 766040.