GUIDE – Finding Images & Other Media You Can Use in Public Projects


Of the following statements, can you spot the only one that’s true of images you use in public projects (i.e., those visible to any web viewer)?

  • The only images you’re not permitted to use are the ones with visible watermarks
  • You can use images you find via Google Image search on your blog or projects, as long as you cite the source
  • It’s OK to use images that are clearly under full copyright as long as you do so in a restricted, members-only educational environment
  • You can do whatever you want with stock photos as long as you pay for them

Many people are woefully ill-informed about what kind of images they’re allowed to use on blogs and other digital platforms, but just as with traffic law, pleading ignorance won’t get you out of trouble. So before you go looking for images to download and use in a public project*, make sure you know how to tell which of those images you’re legally and ethically permitted to use — and which ones you’re not.

Every year, I hear about more and more students getting in trouble for using copyrighted images or other media in their public projects*, and new search tools have emerged to track down unauthorized uses of copyrighted media, so this is not a trivial issue.

I wrote this guide to try and clear up a few common misconceptions, but it’s just a starting place, not a comprehensive review.

* Reminder: “Public” means available to any web viewer. Different conditions apply to images used in private spaces.


The journey towards understanding whether an image is reusable in a public project starts with this question.

It’s Your Image and Only Yours (full copyright)

Let’s say you recently took a beautifully composed photo of the mountains at sunset and also created a slick logo for your band. Because you created those images, you own the rights to them. Even if you post them on your blog for others to see, you still retain full rights to the images — even if you don’t say so explicitly.

IN SHORT: No one else has permission to use them, unless they ask you directly.

It’s Yours, but Others May Use it Within Strict Limits (stock images)

If your images are particularly appealing and you don’t need to use them in a project of your own, you might try selling them to a stock photo vendor.

These vendors provide a marketplace for your images, which others can purchase and use within the limits of the license set by the stock photo vendor. The license might be fairly flexible or it might be quite strict, as it all depends on what you and the vendor decide. If you’re trying to make a name for yourself as a photographer, you’ll probably opt for a strict license that does not allow others to modify the image, so that it retains your distinctive touch.

IN SHORT: It’s up to the user to read and follow the license.

It’s Yours, but Others May Use it Within Flexible Limits (Creative Commons)

If you want to make those images reusable by others while still retaining rights as the image creator, you can alert your visitors that you’ve made the images reusable under one of the Creative Commons licenses. The licenses have varying degrees of restrictions on how others can use the image, but they all specify that anyone who uses the image must credit you as the creator.

IN SHORT: It’s up to the user to read and follow the license.

It’s Not Yours Anymore (public domain)

If you’d like for anyone to be able to use your images, without having to credit you, then you might opt to donate them to the public domain. By doing that, you give up your rights as the image creator, which means you can never sell that image or claim it as your intellectual property. The image now belongs to the public, not to you.

IN SHORT: Users are free to use the image how ever they wish.


Option 1: Limit Your Search by Usage Rights

The easiest way is to start your search using a tool that limits your results to those you’re permitted to reuse.

To search for public domain images, try Pixabay. Also check out Wikipedia’s list of Public Domain Image Resources.

To search for images licensed under Creative Commons, try:

Some stock photo vendors offer images for free, although they still come with licenses you’re expected to abide by. Try these resources:

You can also limit Google Image search results by usage rights, by clicking on the Search Tools button and selecting one of the options available, as shown below:


Google’s automated search tools can’t always tell for sure what license applies to an image, so limiting the results by those labeled for reuse might end up excluding images that you’re actually allowed to reuse. So keep that in mind if you try this option and it dramatically reduces the number of results. You could always turn filtering by license back off and then try tracking down the source for an image you’d like to use, as described below.

Option 2: Track Down the Source

If you found the image without filtering your search results by usage rights, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t use the image, just that you’ll have to do a little web sleuthing to learn more about it.

Start by visiting the page you downloaded the image from. Browse around to see if you can find out who created the image and what license they might’ve put it under. If the image is available on a page that has contact info, you can always send a message asking for permission to use the image. In that case, include an “image credits” caption with the image that indicates “used with permission.”

Can’t remember where you downloaded the image from? Then don’t risk using it. Either try to find it again with a new search or look for something else.

When in doubt, assume full copyright

If you come across an image you’d like to use, but you can’t figure out from a little searching whether or not it’s reusable, your best bet is to assume that the image creator owns the full rights to the image. That means you can’t use it, at least not in a way that suggests you created it. (There is a bit of wiggle room with how you use these kinds of images, as you can learn about below.)


It was free to download, so isn’t it free to use?

Whether or not you have to pay to download an image has no bearing on whether you’re legally allowed to use it.

With the right tools or tricks, you download just about any image you come across for free, but many of those images are subject to copyright protection, which means that it may be against the law to use them in blog post, presentation, video, or other project that’s open to public viewers.

By contrast, you can purchase images that come with fairly broad licenses, allowing you to not only use the image in a public project but to modify it as well.

In other words, “free” to download does not mean “free to use.”

The cost of an image is irrelevant to the question of whether or not you’re legally allowed to use it in a public project, so just take that factor out of the equation all together.

I found it on Google, so it’s OK to use

You may have found the image via Google Image search, but the image lives on a page on the web, not on Google’s servers. (The same is true of articles you find through Google searches.)

Google uses automated “web crawlers” that travel the web constantly and gather information on what’s out there, which Google’s search engine then uses to provide you with search results. None of the stuff Google finds actually lives ON Google’s servers; Google is just giving you directions to where to find it out there on the web.

Remember that beautiful sunset photo and slick band logo you posted on your blog? After they’ve been on your blog for a few days or weeks, chances are good that Google’s web crawlers will find it and index it according to information like size, file format, color, and keywords, and then the next time someone searches Google Images for a sunset photo, yours may pop up.

I cited the image, so I should be OK

Citing images is a separate issue from whether or not the image counts as “reusable.”

In a class paper or project, your professor will expect you to cite any images you use that you didn’t create, just as you’d cite any words or ideas you used from articles you didn’t write. The articles you quote from are protected by full copyright law, and yet you’re allowed to draw from them for specific academic purposes, and the same is true of copyrighted images. These uses of copyrighted material fall under “educational fair use,” provided the projects are not published anywhere public.

In your future workplace, you’ll find that a similar situation applies, although the organization or company is likely to have much clearer guidelines for you to follow than your university classes, given the liability risks. Many organizations and companies subscribe to stock photo vendors for just this purpose.

But the situation most relevant to my students is the same that applies to all web users who want to share content publicly, whether on a blog or another platform. You probably can’t remember the last time you saw a blog with posts that ended with MLA-style Works Cited sections, because that’s just not part of the customs of blog writing. But what you probably have noticed is the writers often include a caption with images they use that credit the source (by name and/or with a link). To keep the distinctions clear, I’ll remind you to credit your sources in blog posts, rather than to cite them.


On your own personal blog, you do have a bit of wiggle room when it comes to using images that might be subject to full copyright.

If the image appears in an article or other item on the web you’d like to write about in a blog post, you could embed the image in your post and include an “image credits” caption along with a link to the original source.

If you can’t find any info on usage rights, then try to figure out who created the image and how that person or group is benefiting from the image. For example, is it on a page that generates money? Is the image part of the creator’s “brand” or portfolio? Does it reflect the creator’s distinctive touch? Would the creator likely be annoyed to see their image used without permission? If yes, then don’t use the image.

Also consider how you’re planning to use the image. For example, if you want to insert an image into your blog post or presentation so that you can critique it, that’s actually allowed under “fair use,” even if the image has a clear copyright. Likewise, if you plan to use only a small portion of the image or to modify it substantially, those uses may also fall under “fair use.”

If you come across another situation that seems like it might fit under these “wiggle room” scenarios, you’re welcome to ask for my input either in class or by email.


Finding Images

You’ll find image resources relating to each level of permission, above. For some recent articles that feature more resources, check out these links:

Creating Images

What’s even better than finding a great image for your blog? Making one, of course! Here are just a few of the many free tools available on the web:




Below I’ve shared a variety of links I’ve come across over the past few years. But I strongly advise you to also do your own Google searches for information on copyright and fair use, as this area of law is constantly evolving along with the web.