Why You Can't Use Google Images for Your Content

You’re ready to update Facebook on an upcoming event. The caption is well thought out and includes the key details, now you just want to add an image to really grab people’s attention. You go to Google Images and find a great “Fourth of July” photo that goes with your event and upload it easily – done! If this sounds familiar to your routine, you’re most likely using images illegally. A vast majority of what you find on a standard Google Images search is not available for public use.

Google images homepage with search queue "stock photo" typed

Now, it doesn’t sound as surprising to say that it is illegal to use a copyrighted image. After all, that’s what the copyright is for – to secure the “exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute” something, according to Merriam-Webster. What many people don’t realize is that images may be copyrighted without being marked as such. Some websites include a legal disclaimer in the footer along the lines of “All Rights Reserved” or “Copyright 2019” which serve to clarify that the content on the website is copyrighted. However, the instant something is photographed, drawn, written, etc. its copyright is automatically owned by the author according to US law. This means that although they may not have registered for copyright, they own the work and can seek legal action on an infringement by registering for copyright in the future. So rather than assuming anything online is available to use, you need to first assume that it is copyrighted until shown otherwise.

How copyright holders can find infringements

If you were unaware of how copyright law worked online in the past, this may sound very dramatic. You may be thinking, “Even if I take a copyrighted image, what are the chances the owner will even see that?” Unless you’re a large corporation, the chances are slim that the copyright-holder would just happen upon your website, social media post, or blog where you borrowed their image. However, modern technology makes it very easy to search for where an image is being used. Using websites like Google Reverse Image Search or TinEye, copyright-owners can easily find people who are using their work. Some companies (like Disney) make it a routine to find copyright infringements and pursue legal action.

Reverse image search as an example of how many websites use the same image

How to identify free to use images

Thankfully, there are many online resources for free to use images. These use a “Creative Commons” copyright license, which generally means that you can use the image as long as you follow certain restrictions. Sometimes the usage rights are written out, but you might also come across Creative Commons icons. You can read about all of the licenses along with their icons in detail here, but the two you’d most likely want to look for when dealing with stock photos are

CC0 – No Rights Reserved
This means the owner has explicitly waived their rights to the work and placed it in Public Domain. Anyone can edit and use the image, even commercially, without providing credit to the original author.
CC BY
This license allows others to edit and use the image, even commercially, as long as attribution is provided to the owner. For a social media post, that can be something as simple as adding “Photo credit: Kelly Lee” at the end of your caption.

You can also filter Google Image results according to their marked usage rights.

Best free image resources

Now that you’re familiar with how copyright effects images online, you can safely find images to use. Here are just a few great resources that offer free-to-use imagery. Keep in mind that each of these websites has a page that specifically outlines their licensing terms, so check that first.

  • Stock photos: Some great resources for free stock photos are Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay. While these sites may not have a wide selection like paid stock websites, every image is high-quality and contemporary, so you can avoid that obvious stock photo feeling.
  • Clipart: OpenClipart.org and PublicDomainVectors.org are entirely dedicated to free-to-use clipart.
  • Text-based images: If you want some sort of graphic for your post but can’t find something that fits, there are web-based design programs that allow you to create your own graphics easily from a template. Canva.com is tailored for social media, but you can also use the images on your website or blog. They have a mix of free and paid templates.

If you’re finding it difficult to find the perfect image from any of the free methods, there are paid options that suit any budget. You can search for paid stock photo services (some popular ones are Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, and iStock) or work with a graphic designer to create templates or posts customized for your brand. One of the benefits of using a paid method is that you don’t have to worry about mistakenly using a copyrighted image without license (and with a professional graphic designer, you may be able to license or purchase the copyright for your designs).

Now that you know what to look for and some helpful resources to use, you’ll be shielded from any legal exposure that existed previously. Even if you paid for a stock subscription to ensure your images were licensed, those fees are minuscule compared to a potential lawsuit.