Find Blog Images – the Legal Way!


A compelling image doesn’t just illustrate your brilliant and witty post; it provides a visual cue to users browsing your site. In fact, these visual thumbnails are becoming more important every day.

So here you are—you need blog images and you need to watch your pennies.

But before you go gung-ho on Internet image searches, a word of warning:

Although it sometimes seems that the Internet is somehow exempt from copyright enforcement, that is not the case. There are automated systems that scour the Web for infringing images. If your site gets any visibility, you’ll likely get a takedown notice.

So where do you get legal images?

Do It Yourself

One way to guarantee that your images are free of any copyright infringement is to create them yourself.

Especially when creating core imagery for your web site, commissioning custom photography or artwork may be the best solution.


  • You get exactly the images you need
  • You don’t have to be concerned about the competition posting the very same shot (Well, legally anyway)
  • You don’t need to worry about royalties

Note: even if you took the photos yourself or paid to have them created, you could still be facing some tricky legal entanglement. If, for example, your images feature a person, make sure you have a model release for them. Because the person’s image will appear in support of your product or viewpoint, the use of their image requires a model release.

The primary downside here is that creating your own media can be time-consuming. This approach can be expensive, but it doesn’t need to be. If done right, non-professional shots can do the trick.


“Stock Photography” refers to catalogs of existing images that can be licensed for use in your projects. Using stock photos can be a cost-effective alternative to hiring a photographer.

Stock photo licenses fall into a few broad categories:


Royalty-free images usually require just one upfront license fee and have no ongoing fees for continuing or repeated use. These are the simplest licenses to manage since there’s only one transaction.

A quick Internet search for “royalty-free images” will yield many choices.

Some popular royalty-free stock photo sources include:

  • iStockphoto – One of the first stock photography sites on the Internet, currently owned by Getty.
  • Pond5 – A newer entrant. They offer a smaller selection, but content creators earn higher royalties so prices are often low.
  • Shutterstock – Another early stock photo site. Originally a subscription service, Shutterstock has acquired a number of other stock media sites to become one of the largest online stock photo services.
  • Bigstock – Owned by Shutterstock.
  • Getty Images – A traditional stock photo house that offers royalty-free images through a number of channels.
  • Corbis Images – A huge traditional stock photo company founded by Bill Gates that also offers some royalty-free licenses though a number of sites.

The plus side of royalty-free stock photos: Simple licensing, reasonable price, large selection.

On the minus side: The images may be used elsewhere. A lot. We’ve seen a featured photo on a web site appear on a billboard for a competing company.


With rights-managed images, you purchase a license for a single use of an image. Oftentimes, the use will have restrictions on when it can be used and in what media.

Rights-managed licenses are not commonly used for images intended for the web because of these restrictions.


  • The highest quality images often use rights-managed licenses because this is the most expensive type of Stock photography
  • You won’t see the image everywhere. Because the use of the image can be restricted, you can guarantee exclusivity in a specific medium, industry, or timeframe.

Creative Commons


“Creative Commons IV” by_imranabduljabar

There are many images which are in the public domain, or which have been made available for free use. (We’ll discuss Public Domain more in the next section.)

In 2002, a group of lawyers, technologists, and creators developed a license which allows media creators to freely license their content while both maintaining control over the copyright and specifying the ways in which their work could be used.

This Creative Commons licensing system has been widely adopted as a way to provide media for free use.

For your website or blog, you will probably want to search for images that are licensed under the Attribution (CC BY) or Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) licenses.

The “non-commercial” license can often be problematic if your site serves a commercial purpose or generates income from advertising.

Ways to find Creative Commons licensed images include:

Attribution of CC Works

Even when it isn’t required, you should attribute work whenever possible. First, it makes it clear to your audience that you aren’t claiming credit for the work, and that makes you look good.

Second (and here’s some super-secret advanced social media sauce), you can let the creator know you used the work via social media. It promotes the creator, and if the creator liked your post, they may retweet or share your content.

Everybody wins!

Benefits of Creative Commons photos:

  • “Free” images
  • Lots of “slice of life” images since many amateurs use this license
  • Social media benefits to promoting the originator

Public Domain

Images whose copyrights have expired or have been contributed to the public domain are available for use without restriction.

Works by the U.S. government are not eligible for U.S. copy­right protection.

This mean that laws, regulations, and other documentation created by the implementation of laws are all available for use.

But, more specifically to our interests, it means photographs created by order of the government are also freely available. So the entire NASA image archive is at your disposal!

spiral galaxy

“Spiral Galaxy M81” NASA – Ames

There’s a general US Government site which has pretty much everything, but it can be difficult to find things.

Anything over 120 years old falls into the public domain, and many works have been explicitly placed in the public domain by their creators.

WikiMedia Commons – The Wikipedia folks offer millions of free-to-use images.

Wikipedia also has good list of free and public-domain repositories.

Benefits of using Public Domain photographs:

  • Really, truly, free
  • Many historical photographs are Public Domain

The Paperwork

However you acquire an image, you should keep a record of the origin of the image and the license under which it is being used. Some Asset Management Systems make this process easy, but a simple spreadsheet will also work.

Even if your image came from The Commons, if it features a person, you may still need to procure a model release if the use of the image implies support for your company, product or point of view.

If the image uses a Creative Commons license and requires Attribution, make sure you give credit to the creator of the image.

It’s always smart to have your ducks in a row. The evidence you compile to show you’re using an appropriate license will be helpful if you’re ever presented with a copyright challenge or takedown notice.

Note: Although we’ve been talking about images here, these same ideas generally apply to other types of media like sounds and video as well.

Drive in fast food lunch in car

“Lunch in the Car – Hylan Boulevard, Staten Island, 06/1973” – Records of the Environmental Protection Agency

No Free Lunch

More and more images are becoming available through “free” sources, but finding these images takes time, and you still need to keep the paperwork.

Because they have great search tools, and handle all the legal work, Royalty-Free stock photos can save you time and money over the free sources.