How Do You Know If You Can Use an Image For Commercial Use?

Whether you’re beautifying your website, creating a cool presentation or writing a blog post, an excellent image can make or break your project. However, the ins and outs of image licensing and usage can be tricky to navigate.

Whether you’re using an RF or RM image, it’s best to avoid copyright infringement at all costs.


Copyright protects a creator’s rights to their work, including the right to reproduce it, adapt it or otherwise change it and the right to display it publicly. In some countries authors also have moral rights, which may include the right to be recognized as the author of a work (or to choose not to), the right to control associations with it and the integrity of the work, and the right to prevent certain modifications that could damage their reputation.

If you create an original image you automatically own the copyright to it – no need to file anything or take any other action. However, it is important to understand what this means for your use of images, especially when using them for commercial purposes.

In some cases you can use images without breaking copyright if you have the permission of the image owner. This is usually possible when the images are being used in a manner that falls within one of the fair dealing exceptions to copyright protection. This may include making a scan or digital copy for the purpose of research or study, or using an image in the context of teaching or learning, provided that the number of copies made and the scope of the use remains limited.

Using images from the web in an academic setting can also fall under the fair dealing exception, but it is always best to check the terms of use on any website that you plan to obtain the images from and ensure that your intended use falls within those terms. If it doesn’t, you will need to seek permission from the image owner or find another source for the images.

Alternatively, you can use images that have entered the public domain, or those that are covered by less restrictive Creative Commons licenses. The most accommodating of these is the Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY licence, which permits you to use and alter an image even for commercial purposes, as long as you give credit and license your new work under the same terms. It is still a good idea to consider adding the traditional copyright symbol () or the word “Copyright” or the abbreviation “Copr.” with the date and name of the copyright holder to all of your images, just in case you need to assert your rights.


A copyright owner has the right to require attribution when their work is used in a commercial way. This may include requiring credit and prohibiting certain uses of their work. This is why it is important to read the license terms on the images you use.

Generally, a copyright lasts for the life of an author plus 70 years. However, if a creator does not renew their copyright after that time, it becomes part of the public domain. That means that the image is now free for anyone to use. This is also true for images that have been created by the government, or by a not-for-profit organization.

While these images are still subject to copyright, they often have a less restrictive Creative Commons license than those of private copyright holders. If you are using these images for non-commercial purposes, such as education and research, then it is acceptable to use them. However, you should still cite them as the author if possible.

If you want to use an image for a commercial purpose, then you will need to contact the copyright holder and ask for permission. The copyright holder may decide to allow or disallow the use of their work, and may require a fee to be paid.

In some cases, a copyright holder will choose to make their works available under a variety of Creative Commons licenses. These licenses vary in their terms, from requiring attribution to allowing commercial use. You should always read the license terms on any Creative Commons images you use, as they may have additional restrictions.

If you are using a Creative Commons image for a blog post, it is best to embed the image instead of downloading and uploading it. That way you won’t be infringing on any copyrights and you will have a link back to the original source. This is also a good option for websites, as it keeps the website’s frame, share buttons and branding intact. If you are unsure of how to do this, there are many online resources that can guide you through the process.


A license is an official permission or permit to do, use, or own something. Licensing can affect how you can use an image for commercial purposes, and it also determines what restrictions you may have when creating derivative work. For example, a photo might have a Creative Commons (CC) license, which is a free-to-use, copyright-free license that allows people to share and reuse photos as long as they credit the creator and don’t make money from it. The CC system has gone through several iterations, and the latest version is CC 4.0. This allows you to search for images based on their licensing terms.

You can also find images that are in the public domain, which means that the original copyright has expired or been forfeited and the work is no longer protected by copyright law. However, the quality of these images varies, so it’s important to check the license on each one.

Most sites that offer free stock images have a section dedicated to commercial use and can be searched using specific criteria. For example, you can filter on “commercial use & mods allowed” on Flickr to find relevant images. Other options include a number of websites that provide free high-resolution images, such as Burst and Pexels. You can also search for a specific type of image with a tool such as Canva, which is an online graphic design website that offers a variety of free images.

If you are not sure if an image is licensed for commercial use, it is best to contact the copyright owner and ask. There is no need to fill out a formal application or pay a fee, although it is good practice to request permission in writing. Most major publishers and periodicals have a rights desk or an editorial assistant who can help you get in touch with the right person.

For non-commercial use, the most accommodating license is CC BY-SA, which lets others distribute, remix, and build upon your work as long as they credit you and share their creations under the same conditions. This is the default license on Wikimedia Commons. It is also possible to restrict the use of your media files to non-commercial uses only, which is called the CC BY-NC-ND license.

Fair Use

Fair use is a copyright doctrine that allows certain uses of copyrighted material without permission from the copyright owner. The law defines four factors to consider when evaluating whether or not a work is fair under this doctrine:

The first factor looks at the purpose of your use. Nonprofit educational and personal purposes are favored as fair uses, while commercial use is less likely to be considered fair. However, simply using a work for a nonprofit educational or personal purpose does not automatically qualify as fair use, and a commercial use does not necessarily fail as a fair use.

Another important factor is the nature of the copyrighted work itself. Works that are highly creative in nature and imaginative or expressive in character generally receive more protection under copyright law, which reflects the law’s purpose of encouraging creativity and innovation. Conversely, factual, non-fiction works are less protected because the law values the author’s right to control when and how their work is published and distributed.

Finally, the fourth factor examines how much of a work you have used. There are no bright lines or absolute limits on how much of a work can be used for fair use, but the law looks at both the quantity and quality of your use. In particular, the law looks at whether you have taken the so-called “heart of the work.”

It’s also worth noting that your fair use evaluation should consider whether or not you could have obtained a license to use the work from the copyright holder if you had wanted to. This factor is often overlooked and can be a difficult issue to navigate because it requires assessing whether or not you would have been willing to pay for a license.

To assist with your fair use evaluation, Penn State has compiled an index of court cases that have addressed fair use issues. This index is designed to be user-friendly and includes a brief summary of each case, the relevant question(s) asked by the court, and the court’s decision as to whether or not the use was fair. However, the index is not a substitute for legal advice and should be reviewed only in conjunction with the other factors of fair use analysis.

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