How to Make Friends with Photo Sourcing

By Ritika Puri May 9th, 2012

Writers should know their rights. While the Internet provides a channel to share media, it isn’t a free-for-all. Copyright and intellectual property laws are important to follow, especially for photo and image sourcing.

Image sourcing guidelines are not always straightforward.

“Unless you studied to be a journalist, publisher, or lawyer, you most likely didn’t get an overview of mass media law,” Plagiarism expert Jonathan Bailey said in a recent blog post. “That’s unfortunate because now, with blogging and social media, everyone is a journalist and/or publisher, at least from a legal perspective.”

Freelancers need reliable sources for free, low-cost, and legal images. They also need the skills to identify and avoid potential copyright problems ahead of time. Here are some resources with which to get started:

Creative Commons

Flickr and Creative Commons Search are two resources where bloggers can find images licensed for commercial use.

“Creative Commons is a licensing system by which bloggers, artists, photographers, musicians, and other creatives give others permission to copy and reuse their works under a certain said of restrictions,” Bailey said. “The reason this is useful is because copyright law makes it so that all works of creative authorship are copyrighted by default.”

Under a Creative Commons license, creators give others explicit permission to use their work, however, they can impose restrictions on licensing terms for commercial use and derivative works. All works require attribution in a manner specified by the creator.

Freelancers who use a Creative Commons-licensed image should “… be sure to check the terms of the license,” Hubspot’s Beth Dunn said. “Most images require attribution to the original author, but some licenses include additional restrictions.”

Wikimedia Commons

The Wikimedia Foundation hosts a database of almost 13 million freely available media files.

According to the Wikimedia Foundation, all content “is owned by the individual creators” and “may be freely reused” without permission. Each image has specific licensing terms listed with it.

But beware, the writer should proceed with caution and do their background research, as “the Wikimedia Foundation does not provide any warranty regarding the copyright status or correctness of licensing terms.”

Stock Photos

According to Stock Photo Rights, a website created by Getty Images, there are two main types of stock images: royalty free and rights-managed.

With “royalty-free images, buyers get nearly unlimited use. Buyers can use the image in virtually any applications, for as long as they like, in as many different projects as they like, as long as they comply with the terms of the license agreement.” In other words, freelancers can purchase images at a one-time fee for client projects.

Rights-managed images are restricted, “with limitations on things such as duration of use, geographic region, industry, etc., as established in the licensing agreement.” With these types of stock images, buyers may need to pay additional fees as time passes.

Stock photos vary in price from a few to several hundred dollars, and a range of options are available for different budgets.

When filtering through inexpensive options, freelancers should maintain a critical eye, according to Contently  writer Dawn PapandreaStock photo sites are notorious for turning up pages of the same model in slightly different poses,” Papandrea said. “Portraits and staged scenarios ooze with cheesiness.”


Some brands create infographics to increase their viral reach. In these situations, if the creator encourages bloggers to use and share the image, copyright may not be an issue.

“Bloggers should keep an eye out for a copyright (or Creative Commons) statement and a url for readers to be able to find the original high-resolution image,” designer Randy Krum said.

If usage rights aren’t stated explicitly, freelancers can always ask permission from the image’s owner via email.

Asking Won’t Hurt

In the end, the onus in on the writer.

According to Loyola University Chicago’s Center for Digital Ethics and Policy freelancers are responsible for “web sleuthing to find the author’s initial posting” regarding usage. If usage rights aren’t explicit, images are probably off-limits.

Still, copyright restrictions aren’t always deal breakers.  Sometimes, the creator will be happy to exchange an image for the added exposure it will bring. When in doubt, always ask.

Disclaimer: This article was not written or reviewed by a lawyer. The suggestions are available for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. 

Images courtesy of Flickr, avlxyz & Wikimedia Commons

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