Myths & Facts: Can I Use This Image for My Business?

Imagine this: You're scrolling through Pinterest and you find the PERFECT image to use in a flyer for your upcoming event. You're excited as you right-click to save. It's ideal timing, as you've just downloaded a brand new font and some super sharp graphics - all for free! - from Creative Market that you'll use as well. Woohoo! Give yourself a high five! In the forehead! HARD. This is a wake up call to remind you that you need to consider copyright and commercial licenses before you use any of these items for your business.

By far, questions around the use of images and fonts are the ones I get asked the most by clients. I provide extensive information on this topic in client agreements and pre-work discussions, but I felt it was worth having a couple of blog posts that dispel the myths about what design elements can and can't be used for your business - and why. Today we'll focus on images and tomorrow I'll post about fonts and other design elements.

Can I Use This Image for My Business?

Myth 1: If I found it on Google, I can download it and use it for free!

Um, no. While Google has added an Advanced Search filter to help you find images that are licensed for reuse, they do not guarantee the type of license (or the legitimacy of the license). So what should you do if you don't have funds to pay for images?

Fortunately, there are many excellent sites offering high quality, royalty free stock images at no cost. Two of the most popular sites are Pixabay and Pexels. The images on these sites are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, meaning they are free for any legal purpose and do not require attribution (although it's always nice to provide it).

You can also search Flickr for Creative Commons images; however, these usually require attribution and/or don’t allow for commercial use. If you find an image you love, though, you can always reach out to the creator and see if they’d allow you to purchase or license it for use in a commercial product.

When it comes to purchasing images, there are even more sites from which to choose. I tend to use Adobe StockDepositPhotos, iStock, and Colorstock for my purchases. Please note that regardless of where you find or purchase image, you must still be aware of restrictions on its use.

Myth 2: If I paid for an image, it belongs to me and my business.

Ooh, this is another point of confusion for a lot of people! Most of the time, if you pay for an image, you are licensing, not purchasing. Licensing an image means there are restrictions on how you can use it, for how long, on what platform(s), etc. The copyright for the image remains with the photographer. Unless you are a huge company with thousands of dollars to spend on images, it is unlikely you will "buying" photos - where buying means that the actual copyright of the images will be transferred to you.

This means you need to carefully review the licensing agreement for the image(s) you purchase so that you do not use it in a manner that isn't allowed.

Myth 3: Once I've downloaded a free image, licensed one, or even taken one myself, I can use it however I like!

For the most part, if you've photographed or found a public domain or CC0 image of nature or a landscape without any people or products in it, you're generally safe to use it for commercial purposes. If there is an identifiable person in the image, you cannot use the image in a manner or situation they might feel is offensive. If a product or brand is featured, you must be sure that the image doesn't suggest an endorsement of your product, project, or service. These restrictions on identifiable persons and products/brands pertain even to images you take yourself. If you are taking photographs for your business, familiarize yourself with model releases; Jeff Guyer has written an excellent overview on the topic for Digital Photography School.

If you’re searching for images - paid or free - and you see “for editorial use only," that means you cannot use it for any commercial purpose. And even if you can use an image for commercial purposes, you might not be able to use it for all commercial purposes - meaning you might be able to use it in a book or on your website, but not on merchandise or in a digital template you resell to your clients. Ultimately, it's your responsibility to ensure that you fully understand the restrictions on any images you intend to use for your business.

Myth 4: No one really cares where I got my images. It's not like I'm going to get sued!

Nope, nope, nope. Businesses sue other businesses, and artists and photographers sue businesses and bloggers for use of copyrighted images, and rightfully so. Copyright law protects original, tangible works of authorship, which includes images - and, as we'll discuss tomorrow, even fonts.


If I had to sum up my advice, I'd simply say: 1) Do your research into any restrictions when licensing or downloading free or paid images; and 2) Treat images the way you'd like your own business products or services treated: with respect for copyright and the creator. Keep those two things in mind, and you'll be able to bust any myths about using images for your business all by yourself. Tune in tomorrow for more myths and facts about using free and licensed fonts and design elements for your business!