Can I Use an Image I Found Online?

In the world of online marketing, images can be critical. But they can also be tricky to use without compromising copyright laws.

There are copyright and licensing questions you must answer before using an image – including whether it’s in the public domain, licensed or under a creative commons license.


If you take photos or images online, it’s important to understand your rights. The first thing you should know is that copyright protects the images that you capture. This means that unless your employer has specific rights to the image, you are the only person who can use it.

The only exception to this is if you have signed a contract that gives your employer permission to use the images you take. If this is the case, you have to ensure that you have registered the images with the copyright office as soon as possible.

There are many different ways to protect your images online, but a common method is using watermarks. These are simple to apply, stay on the image at all times, and discourage unauthorized use.

Another popular method is to add a digital signature. This is a unique code that is used to identify the original creator of an image. Unlike watermarks, digital signatures don’t disrupt the quality of the image or interfere with its functionality.

Adding a copyright message alongside your images is also an effective way of protecting them. It can be displayed either in the caption or under the image itself, and can be a great deterrent for thieves.

The most important aspect of displaying your copyright messages is to make sure they are clear and concise. A simple ‘Copyright [photographer’s name]’ is usually enough, but you may want to add the year as well if you wish.

You can also include a link to your website or blog where you talk about the copyright protection of your images, and provide an email address with a clickable link so people can contact you directly to ask for permission to use the image. This will make it easy for readers to find you and avoid copyright infringements in the future.

Another helpful tip is to check the terms and conditions of any site you use to upload your images to. If you do not comply with their terms and conditions, you could be in violation of copyright law.


When you find an image online and you want to use it, you should make sure that you give the image’s creator credit. This is called attribution and it’s a legal requirement. If you don’t, you could face fines and other penalties for copyright infringement.

Image attribution is important because it helps you to ensure that you’re not infringing on someone’s intellectual property rights. It also makes it easier for you to trace the owner of the image, if necessary. It is also good practice to link to the original author’s website and/or the Creative Commons license to which the image was licensed.

For most images you can easily find out the creator, title, and source of an image by checking its copyright notice or terms of use. You can use this information to figure out how to cite the image in your paper or document.

Most citation styles will include information on how to cite images from digital databases and online image libraries. These requirements are generally similar to citing any other digital resource.

Some style guides, like APA and MLA, have more specific requirements for citing online image databases. These may differ depending on the discipline, but usually require that you cite the creator, image title, and source of an image from an online database.

Many online image libraries (such as Flickr, Wikimedia Commons and Getty Images) also have terms of use and copyright information that can help you determine how to cite the images in your project. The attribution required for these images will vary between different libraries and online databases, so it is essential to check the database’s terms of use to make sure that you’re not infringing someone’s copyright.

Other times, you might find an image that is in the Public Domain or that has been digitized and uploaded to an online database by an institution. These are generally free to use, but they have no exclusive intellectual property rights and you should credit the creator of the image as per their licensing terms.

Attribution is a critical part of the marketing process and it is important to understand how your audience reacts to your brand’s message. You can do this by incorporating attribution into your marketing strategy, such as using a Z-shaped attribution model that apportions credit for each touchpoint in the consumer’s journey to a particular brand.

Fair Use

There are a variety of reasons why people may want to use an image online, including for educational purposes. The law is designed to ensure that you have the freedom to do so, while also protecting the rights of others to use that same material.

Fortunately, there is an area of law called fair use that allows you to use copyrighted material without the permission of the original creator. However, you should be careful to follow the rules.

In order to determine whether a use of a copyrighted work is allowed, courts consider four factors. Those factors are: the nature of the copyrighted work; the purpose and character of the use; the amount or substantiality of the portion used; and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The first factor, the purpose and character of the use, looks at how the image is being used. Courts generally prefer to see reasonable, limited, and scholarly uses of materials for the purpose of criticism or comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.

It is also important to consider the nature of the copyrighted work; works that are primarily factual are more likely to be considered fair use than those that are highly creative. This is a good thing for those who are using images in their work.

Often, courts will look at whether the use of the copyrighted material is “transformative.” This means that the use was not simply a copying or re-use of the original work, but rather a new creation. This can be difficult to prove, but courts have found that this factor is most favorable to fair use.

Likewise, if the image is part of a larger compilation, such as a database, you must adhere to the guidelines set forth by that provider. This can be confusing and time-consuming, but it is best to follow the rules outlined by the provider as closely as possible.


When you’re looking for images for your project, it’s important to remember that the images you see online are likely copyrighted and cannot be used without permission from their creator. This is often called copyright infringement and can be very serious. The owner of the copyright can pursue legal action against anyone who violates their rights, and they may be liable to pay damages if they lose a court case.

You can avoid this by ensuring you credit the image properly, whether it’s with a link back to the original or a Creative Commons license. In addition, you can search for a centralized database of images to identify the owner and ensure that you are using only licensed material.

If you have a good idea of the author or copyright owner, it’s usually easier to get permission from them. Many people have an online portfolio and you can contact them directly to ask for their permission to use their images.

Some images are also deemed to be in the public domain, meaning that their owners have forfeited their rights. This is a rare situation and can be confusing, as the copyright holder may not have been identified.

However, if you are unsure about the copyright status of an image and can’t find a reputable agency or the owner of the image, consider asking for a search from the Copyright Office. Even if the search isn’t successful, the Copyright Office can provide paperwork that shows your good faith effort to establish the rights of an image.

You can also use a service like Book Creator to easily identify the author of an image and make it easy for you to give attribution when repurposing or reusing their work. Some social media platforms also have a centralized database that you can use to identify the owner and ensure you are using only licensed materials.

For more information on how to determine the copyright status of an image, check out the Prints and Photographs Division’s resources. They provide catalog notes and rights statements for most collections that they have analyzed. Sometimes the records don’t contain a note or the wording may vary.

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