7 Ways to Make Sure You Aren’t Stealing That Photo

We’ve all heard the expression that pictures are worth a thousand words. In this digital age, pictures can be worth thousands of shares, retweets, likes, and pins on multiple social media platforms. A picture has the power to grab a reader’s attention – and possibly their business, if the accompanying content lives up to their expectations.

However, the Internet makes it all too easy to access photographic content without the approval of the owner. The most eye-catching photograph may be copyrighted and unavailable for commercial use. We all know that it’s wrong to steal someone’s work, but you may not be aware that in some cases, using images without explicit permission is illegal.

While it’s true that US Copyright laws are a bit behind these fast-paced times, ultimately it’s up to them on what defines “fair use” of an image. Those laws can be long, complicated, and difficult to understand, so here are a few guidelines to help you.  Additionally, we put together a list of 7 ways to make sure you aren’t stealing that photo.

1. Are you the owner of the photo?

If so, then agreements like “Work for Hire” do not apply to you, because you created it. Generally speaking, if you made it, then you own all the rights to it.

2. “Copyright infringement” is different from “plagiarism”

Unfortunately, linking to the original source of an image – using a caption saying, “Photo taken by [person’s name or business name]” – may not absolve the issue of copyright infringement, even though you are clearly intending to give credit where it is due.

You may think that you’re covering all your bases by giving the artist exposure for their work, but unfortunately, the laws don’t recognize that as enough.

Only the image creator can decide where they want their work featured: it’s not up to anyone else to decide that for them. For some creators, not all exposure is ideal exposure

3. Just ask!

The easiest way to absolve yourself of all possible legal entanglements is to simply ask the image creator for permission to use their work, with proper credit given.

If they say yes, great!

Just make sure to save their permission in writing. If they say no, respect their wishes, and consider an alternative…

4. Use images in the public domain

“Public domain” means that the images have been in circulation long enough to be used without the permission of the original creator. Believe it or not, tons of image-generating websites exist where you can find many high-quality photos that don’t require permission to use – no attribution required ( in most cases, that is – it’s always good to double check!).

5. Understand the meaning of “creative common license”

Acquiring a creative common license means you can download someone else’s image if you use proper attribution. Many people are more than happy to share their work – you just have to do so by their rules. Keep in mind also that the image creator can change their license at any point in time, which means if you’ve already used one of their images, you may be required to take it down from your site.

6. Different uses, different rules

Using someone else’s image could be fine for your blog, but not fine for a newspaper, magazine article, or a book.

This is only permissible if you are the image creator or the legal copyright holder.

The person who owns the copyright is entitled to allow use of their image in some settings and not others.

7. Just assume that every image you find online is copyrighted

This is the easiest way to avoid both legal issues and personal disappointment.

The lack of an official “©” mark does not mean the image is up for grabs.

Even if you can’t find evidence of copyright, don’t assume that it isn’t there – your business, website, and reputation could suffer for it.

There is always a risk for complications if an image is used on multiple platforms other than the original it was taken from. Making a few changes to an image, such as adding text, also does not make the image yours. And just because a Big Name Person does it all the time without consequence doesn’t mean you can.


It’s always best to use your own work when possible, or download from respected image sources such as Shutterstock, Canva, or DreamsTime. These websites offer paid monthly subscriptions that allow you to download a certain number of images at one price.

Copyright laws are difficult to understand, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand how they work.

When in doubt, always request permission, do background research, and trust your instincts.

Have you ever run into copyright issues when using online images? Tell us your story in the comments.