Download and Use Images for Free While Avoiding Copyright Infringement

by Sheri_Oz

Took me a long time to understand what images I can and cannot use for free on the Internet and when and why. I want to make it easier for you.

There are thousands of free image files available for you on the Web to download and use to illustrate your website, blog, articles, etc. There are even those that you can put onto zazzle or other print-on-demand products and sell.

But if you do not understand the different categories of copyright and free images, you may inadvertently use a photo or clip-art image in a way that violates the rights of the artist. With all the material that is freely available, there is no reason to exploit the work of others nor to put yourself at risk of costly lawsuits.

You will find here definitions of copyright categories so that you can immediately understand when you see the type of license under which an image was published. I will also provide the URLs for websites that. list image resources and those that explain the licenses in greater detail.

Public Domain Images

Absolutely Totally Free for You to do With as You Please

There are two ways by which photographs and graphic images are available for you to use in any way you see fit - and that includes affixing the images to print-on-demand products that are posted for sale on such sites as zazzle, cafe-press and others.

The first way is when artists upload the material themselves with a clear statement that they are providing the images to the public domain. This means that these images can be altered, distributed and displayed in any way the user wants, with the artist's a priori agreement.

However, the artist may make some special request of the user that is not obligatory. For example, Ricaso Freebies asks that you NOT credit or refer to him in your product descriptions on zazzle as that messes up searches to his own products on that site.

The second way is when the copyright expires. The laws governing this situation are different in different countries. For example, in the USA, copyright expires 70 years after the artist dies. In Mexico 100 years must pass after the artist's death. There are also instances whereby the copyright is passed on to beneficiaries or renewed.

An Example of Use of a Photo Provided by the Artist to the Public Domain

Use of a Photo Where the Copyright has Expired

When You CANNOT Use Public Domain Images for Commercial Purposes

This is a most important point to remember - even if a photo or graphic image has been published to the Public Domain, that does not necessarily mean you can use it on your blog, website or print-on-demand product.

If the image shows a recognizable brand name or trademark, then that brand or trademark is protected even if the photograph is not.

Therefore, Coca Cola, Fanta, Nestea, Disney and all its characters and fun parks, cars, trucks, tractors, etc. are protected and images of them cannot be used without the company's permission. Some store and restaurant names would fall in this same category. Modern buildings may also still be copyright protected and their images cannot be used for commercial purposes.

It is the user's responsibility to check and make sure the image is not going to infringe on copyright laws regarding the image itself as well as the image contents.

Can Anyone Obtain the Copyright to an Image in the Public Domain?

The short answer is: "No".

The long answer is: If you have transformed the image in some way, using it as a part of a unique piece of work, then the final product (and not the original on which it is based) has copyright protection.

These include:

  1. New pieces of artwork - my card and magnet above are my own even if the graphics and fine art painting were not. A collage made up of images from the public domain becomes subject to copyright protection.
  2. Unique collation of images from the public domain - for example, websites providing a collection of downloadable images that were selected by the website owner are protected by copyright while each individual image is not. Similarly, books that are collections of reproductions of images have copyright protection.

An Example of a Superb Art Book

The Paintings are in the Public Domain but the Book is Copyright Protected
Masterpiece Paintings: From the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Note that most artists that provide Public Domain images and most websites providing access to images for which the copyright has lapsed make it clear that the images are NOT to be used for pornographic, discriminatory or otherwise inflammatory material.

Are Photographs of Public Domain Materials Protected by Copyright ?

The answer to this question depends, in part, on where you live.

In the USA, courts have determined that photographs of two-dimensional pieces of artwork for which the copyright has lapsed are not to be considered unique artistic productions. They are not, therefore, protected by copyright and anyone can use them for any purpose.

Photographs of sculptures (3-dimensional art) in the Public Domain, however, are of course too dissimilar from the original to be considered exact reproductions. Therefore, such a photograph is subject to copyright protection.

If the photograph of the painting or other 2-dimensional piece of art was transformed into something other than a strict reproduction of the original work, then that photograph would merit copyright protection. Perhaps the photographer digitally enhanced the photograph, changing the hue or contrast; perhaps he or she added text onto the image, or put a frame around it. These changes would render that work a unique piece of art and nobody else would have the right to distribute, display or alter that image.

On the other hand, in the UK, the mere act of photographing a painting or other 2-dimensional piece of art is considered sufficient to merit copyright protection. The calculation of lighting, angles and other technical aspects of photography have been determined in UK courts to be transformational.

Therefore, consider the laws of your own country when deciding whether or not to use a photograph of a Public Domain image in your own work. Since zazzle products are produced in the USA, you may be safe using such photos wherever you live since any potential lawsuit would take place in the USA.

The Disadvantages of Using Public Domain Images

Yes, there are disadvantages to freebies.

  1. You are often provided with small images that cannot be enlarged very well to suit the larger products. They are usually perfect for websites, but not necessarily for print-on-demand.
  2. You never know how many times that exact image will be downloaded and used by others, perhaps others who are in direct competition with you. Look at the examples of these images I applied to zazzle products (the text makes them mine, but how many other people also used these images?):

Downloaded 289 (now 290) times

Uploaded January 2012

Downloaded 9 (now 10) times

Uploaded Sept 2012

Royalty-Free Stock Images

Users pay a fee to use Royalty-Free Images (RF). In other words, use of the image has a cost but, instead of paying for each instance in which the image is used, there is a one-time cost for unlimited use of the image. Sometimes there is an upper limit on how many times the image may be used, for example, on a million brochures.

The copyright is not purchased when a RF image is acquired and the same image can be sold to many potential users.

There are a number of RF image sites on the Internet, such as Getty and Dreamstime.

Copyright - "All Rights Reserved"

An image that is protected by copyright has All Rights for usage of the image Reserved by the owner of the copyright. That means that nobody but the copyright owner can alter, publicly display, distribute or otherwise benefit from use of the image.

It is important to understand that all creative work is copyright protected whether or not it has been registered with the copyright office in their country. Registration simplifies prosecution in case of copyright violation and lawyers are more likely to take on the case for works that have been registered.

If you want to register a copyright and protect your own work, you may be interested in reading this. And if you feel your work has been used by someone illegally, you can consult this article.

The formal term, All Rights Reserved, no longer need be displayed on or near the image. However, because copyright law is so confusing and today, with the widespread publication of images on the Internet, people may not know if an image is free or not, many artists and photographers write this phrase next to their works.

If something is copyright protected, you cannot copy it, distribute it, display it, modify it and then use it or use the original commercially in any way without getting written permission from the copyright owner.

If you do not know who the copyright owner is, and cannot find out that information, you are best to move on and look for a different image for your website, article, print-on-demand product, etc.

Fair Use of Copyright Protected Images

An Exception to the Copyright No-Display, Non-Distribution Rules

Copyright gives the owner protection against commercial exploitation by others of his or her intellectual property. However, the purpose of art, whether it is written or visual or auditory arts, is that people will read, see or hear the art works.

Therefore, both the artist and society as a whole, have an interest in the execution of critical reviews which may drive sales of copies of the piece of work or tickets to see or hear productions.

Reviews are best when accompanied by examples of the art under examination. It is legitimate to display a few of these on the website, in the article or wherever the art is being reviewed. This is called "Fair Use".

Other examples of Fair Use include using the artworks for educational purposes, whether in schools, colleges, or textbooks. Scholarly research is another example of Fair Use.

Just to show you how this works: when I am studying or teaching a particular subject in my field, I look for scholarly articles on the subject. When I find reference to relevant articles, I send an email to the author (since I do not work at a university library) asking for a digital copy of his or her paper. In that mail, I state clearly that the reason for my request is for personal research or for teaching a class and it will be used for that purpose alone. I promise not to distribute the article in any form.

Similar safeguards are in place for the use of artwork by someone other than the artist. The owner of the copyright cannot object to honest "Fair Use" of his or her work.

In fact, "Fair Use" exposes to the public artworks that otherwise would not be available to them. Books, posters and appropriate website use of art that is under copyright protection ensures that society has access to the art upon which culture thrives.

Creative Commons Licenses - "Some Rights Reserved"

In an attempt to free up copyright restrictions on the use of intellectual property and allow artists to determine the degree to which they are willing to allow their works to be used by others, a nonprofit organization called Creative Commons was established. Now artists can publish their works under any of the 6 available Creative Commons (CC) licenses.

Countries around the world are adopting this system, and yet there is quite a bit of controversy around it. If you want to read more about the debate about CC, then you might be interested in Does Creative Commons Free Your Content and A Review of Creative Commons and Science Commons.

The 6 CC licenses are:

Attribution (CC BY) - One can freely use the image for any purpose and must give credit to the artist.

Attribution Share Alike (CC BY-SA) - One can freely use the image for any purpose giving credit to the artist, and if altered in any way, the altered image is also licensed as CC BY-SA.

Attribution No Derivatives (CC BY-ND) - The image can be freely used, attributing the work to the artist, but no alterations can be made to the work.

Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC) - The image can be altered in some way but not used commercially and the artist must be acknowledged. The new image can be released under a different license than the original.

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (CC BY-NC-SA) - One can alter the image and the new image must give credit to the original artist, cannot be used commercially, and must be released under license CC BY-NC-SA.

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (CC BY-NC-ND) - No changes can be made to the image; it cannot be used for commercial benefit by anyone other than the license holder, and credit must be given to the artist.

Suggested Sources for Public Domain Images

Thank-you Generous People

Ricaso Freebies
A graphic artist who also maintains a blog on which he uploads free graphics for anyone to use on their zazzle products. He specifically states that he does NOT want you to link to his site or credit him in the description as it interferes with searches to his own zazzle products.

Free Commercial Use Resources from Mad Aussie
List of websites on which free images are uploaded and available to use on any commercial project. There is no guarantee that all the images are copyright-free and the user is responsible for making sure.

Public Domain Photos
Photographer who has uploaded quite a selection of photos to the public domain. He does not ask for a link or credit but would be pleased if you do credit him.

Best Resources for Copyright Free Images
A pretty comprehensive list of websites at which you can find images in the Public Domain. You need to check each one carefully, however, as some of these may inadvertently contain some images that are not in the Public Domain.

Copyright Free Images for Commercial Use
Describes pixabay and how to use the site. I followed their advise and now use pixabay and can usually find anything I need in the way of images.

Official Information on Copyright for the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia

If you send me links to similar websites in other countries in their own languages, I will add the links here to help readers from across the globe.

When U.S. Sources Pass into the Public Domain
A chart prepared by Lolly Gasaway at the University of North Carolina that clearly explains the rules pertaining to expiration of copyright on intellectual property.

Copyright Act 1968, Australia
The entire Act delimiting all the rules for copyright protection in Australia.

Canadian Intellectual Property Office
Website of the government of Canada in which you can find information concerning copyright, trademarks and patents in Canadian Law.

Copyright Registration in the U.S.A.
If you are interested in how to register a work of visual art for copyright purposes, this article tells you what you need to know.

UK Copyright Service
A website devoted to answering questions about copyright of intellectual property in the UK.

A Graphic Flow-Chart Showing You How to Think About Free and Copyright Images

I wanted to post the graphic here and wrote to the author asking for permission. He has not yet got back to me. Therefore, I cannot put the flow-chart up here, but I can direct you with a link to the page on his website where you can see it. Can I Use this Image on My Website?

The Difference Between Copyright Violation and Plagiarism

Copyright Violation involves the use of intellectual property of any kind in a way for which permission was not given by the owner of the copyright.

Plagiarism means using someone else's work and saying it is your own.

Updated: 04/05/2014, Sheri_Oz
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Did I answer all your questions? Is there something I misunderstood and you can correct me on? After all, this stuff is complicated.

younghopes on 04/05/2014

Thanks a lot Sheri,i would look for it,

Sheri_Oz on 04/05/2014

Yes, you can get vintage art images for free since the copyright for most of the unretouched images has long expired. One great source is wikipedia. If you know an artist you like, look him or her up on wikipedia and they often have images of that artist's work and when you click on the image you get a downloadable copy together with copyright information.

younghopes on 04/05/2014

Yet another great post from you, just wish to know how the zazzle artists are making designs describing 'vintage' art, gifts etc. I have always wondered that, are they available for free on any of the sites?

Sheri_Oz on 06/29/2013

Thanks for the compliment, Brenda.

BrendaReeves on 06/29/2013

This excellent article should have a badge, Sheri. It's information that many writer's are looking for.

Sheri_Oz on 01/27/2013

TWS: Glad to be of help!

TedWritesStuff on 01/27/2013

great info.. thank you.

Sheri_Oz on 01/25/2013

Thanks for this, Tolovaj. Going to check it out now.

Tolovaj on 01/25/2013

Seeing the debate still going on I can add two interesting search strings for everybody who wants to know more about copyrights of photos of paintings in museums.

One is legal precedence: 'Bridgeman Art Library vs Corel Corp' where everybody can learn what can be done with law and a lot of money.

The other is called 'The Yorck Project' and it is an answer for everybody who would like to use great photos of great paintings and sleep well.

I hope it helps:)

Sheri_Oz on 01/25/2013

Mira, regarding your first point: "Fair Use" should trump any copyright as long as you use the work for truly fair use purposes. Commercially - well, copyright laws are copyright laws. I wonder if the Romanian museums "wrap contract" is written into Romanian Law. If not, you may have a case to challenge them if you are so inclined to open up the field there.

Regarding your second point: Perhaps I should go back to my relevant products and make a note that this product is not for sale in the UK - but maybe I'll go onto the zazzle forum and see what more experienced sellers say - this is an excellent point and thanks for bringing it up.

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