The Right Way to Use Images You Find Online

It may seem like finding photos and graphics to use on your business' website or printed marketing material is as easy as heading to Google, entering a search term and saving the image to your hard drive.

However, there's more to it than that. Most of the images you find online are someone's intellectual property and are protected by traditional copyright or alternative licenses. What’s more, simply making basic edits to someone else’s to use for your own purposes doesn’t qualify as fair dealing in Canada. And even if you pay for an image that doesn't necessarily mean you can use it indefinitely or free of any other restrictions.

The matter of copyright and licensing becomes even stickier when the potential exists for you to profit from the use of someone else's content – so how can you be sure be sure you're not unintentionally infringing on others' intellectual property? Below are a few guidelines to keep in mind when purchasing or repurposing images online:

Purchasing Stock Images

If you're purchasing stock images from iStockphoto, Shutterstock or a similar service, be sure you review the content licensing agreement first. Despite the fact that you're paying for the image, there may still be restrictions on how you can use it, what you can do to it and how many times you can use it. For instance, some images may only be licensed to use for editorial purposes (such as an article on your blog), but not commercial purposes (such as your brochure).

While content licenses can be lengthy reads, you'll want to do you due diligence and ensure that the licensing agreement you're committing to covers all of your intended uses – before you enter your credit card information.

Finding Images on Social Media

It may be tempting to think that images shared by users on Facebook, Instagram and other social networks are up for taking, especially due to these services' ever-shifting terms of services and privacy policies. However, if you're not sure how an image is licensed or who owns the copyright, then err on the side of caution – just don't use it. 

Even if you're not held legally accountable for violating copyright law, many brands have experienced notable public backlash for appropriating other people's images from social media to reuse for their own marketing purposes.

Using Creative Commons Content

Creative Commons (or “CC”) is a way for people to license their work without the blanket usage restrictions that come with typical copyright protection. A CC license may be selectively applied by a content creator to allow other people to use their intellectual property as long as they provide attribution (at a minimum). 

Further to basic attribution, there are six different CC licenses that a content creator can select, each with various restrictions on how their work can be used, adapted or redistributed. You can read about details and restrictions of the different licenses on the CC website.

So how do find CC-licensed images and graphics? Using the advanced search tools on either Flickr or Google Image Search are great places to start, as well as Wikimedia Commons. By limiting your search to only show images that have been labelled available for commercial use, you'll be able to filter out the ones you definitely can't use. 

If you find a CC-licensed image you'd like to use, be sure to provide attribution to the original creator and also adhere to any other license restrictions.

Alternatively, some content creators choose to release their works entirely to the public domain, which means you can use their work freely, you don't need to ask permission to use it and you don't need to provide any attribution to them. Wikimedia Commons can also be used to search for public domain images, as well as