This is something that we run into often as web designers. Everyone wants beautiful graphics on their website. They’re good for user experience, they’re good for SEO, and they’re good for social media sharing. However, not everyone understands the rules of when you can and can’t use a photo or graphic. That’s okay; we get that it’s complicated. That’s why we’ve put together this easy to understand guide to teach you the basics of when you can and can’t use photos on your commercial website.

What is Copyright?

The first thing that is important to understand is what copyright is. A copyright protects an original work (such as an image, photograph, illustration, piece of writing, etc) from being reproduced without an owner’s permission. A copyright is applied to an original work as soon as it is created, meaning that you don’t have to file for a copyright, announce it, or do anything else in order for an image to be copyrighted. In fact, the only non-copyrighted images are those whose owners have willingly given up the copyright or whose owners have been dead for long enough the images are in the public domain. Copyrights are opt-out, not opt-in, so even if you don’t see anything saying an image is copyrighted, it still is.

But They Put the Image on the Internet for Everyone to See and Use

The fact that an image is publically available to view on the internet doesn’t mean it isn’t still copyrighted. Just because an image comes up in a Google search does not mean you can use it. I know that it’s easy to right-click and save an image to your computer to use later, but just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Even if you see the same image on multiple sites doesn’t mean it’s free game. Images posted on the internet are still protected by copyright unless otherwise stated.

Think about it this way: imagine you spend a lot of time and money putting together a beautiful image of your product. You did all the work yourself and your product is completely original. Would you want people using that image to make money selling their own stuff? Of course not! Photographers, illustrators, and everyone else feels the same way. Their graphics are their product and by using them for free without permission, you are stealing from them. Creating images isn’t free, and artists and other creators take their images seriously.

What’s Stopping Me From Using Copyrighted Images?

First and foremost, using a copyrighted image on your site is akin to stealing the image. The morals of the situation should be enough to stop you. However, you should know that if you use someone’s image in an unfair way, they can (and most will) sue you for compensation for the image. Even if you take the image down after they contact you, you can still owe them money for having used the image at all. A website full of copyrighted images can cost you thousands of dollars. That’s why it’s important to be extra careful when using images from the internet properly.

So What Images Can I Use?

All of this can be overwhelming, I know. You’re probably asking yourself just what images you actually can use. The good news is that there are plenty of images still available for you to use. Remember when we mentioned earlier that artists can choose to opt-out of copyright? There are many images available for use. There are various levels of copyright, and some images may be free to use for personal use, but not for business use. If you’re looking for images to put on your business website, you’ll want to look for images that are public domain and free to use commercially. This type of copyright (or lack thereof) is known as Creative Commons 0 or CC0.

Some of the best sites to find images that are free to use commercially include:

What if I Don’t Like Any of the Free Images?

Because these stock sites offer images for free, they don’t have a huge selection to choose from. If you cannot find a free for commercial use image you’d like to use, you have a few more options. One is to purchase a license to use an image. There are many stock photo sites that sell images. These are often more comprehensive and have better quality images than the free sites, which is why they come at a cost. This cost can vary from site to site and even image to image. Many stock sites offer a subscription program, making it possible to purchase a lot of images for a lower cost. This is a great affordable option if you are just getting started with your site and need a lot of images.

When you buy an image from a stock site, make sure that you read and understand the terms of use. You want to make sure that you buy a commercial license if there are different levels available. Some sites require you to attribute the photographer, even if you pay for the image, so be sure you understand the terms before you buy the image.
Some well-known stock image sites include:

You also always have the option to take your own photos. This guarantees that you will have a unique image, instead of the same stock photo that is on every site (if you take the photo, you will own the copyright, meaning that none of your competitors can legally use the image). You can take the photos yourself, or hire a local photographer to take images for you for a low cost. Many people shy away from taking their own images, but today’s smartphones can take a photograph of high enough quality to use on a website. Just make sure that the lighting is good and your subject is in focus. You might consider taking photos of your store or office, your van or equipment, your employees at work (just get their permission first!), your products, or anything else unique to your business.

How Can I Make Sure that My Web Designer is Using Images Legally?

If you aren’t building your own site but paying someone else to do it, you might be worried that your web design team is using images illegally. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous companies out there that will do this. Make sure that you choose a web designer with a good reputation and lots of experience. Kite Media’s web design team can help you create a beautiful site with images that are completely legal for you to use, so you don’t need to worry about anything.

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