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Copyright and Images

Although nothing here should be considered legal advice, this guide outlines six possible approaches to more safely and legally use other creators' images in your own work, along with comments on the advantages and legal risks of each.

Fair Use provisions can leave you wondering if the image you found can be used or not without infringement. Here is a brief outline of five scenarios for using images in your work. 

Note that in ALL cases, properly attributing the original creator is necessary.


Option 1: Use whatever you want and claim fair use.

  • A Google image search can brings back millions of results. 
  • This can be problematic because...
    • there's no regard for the original creator's rights or intentions;
    • there's no way to know if your use is indeed fair; and
    • it can open you up to charges of infringement, especially if you republish your usage.

Option 2: Pay to use professional stock images

  • Stock photo services like Getty Images, Shutterstock, Adobe Stock, Dreamstime, and 123RF sell licenses to great, high-quality photos.
  • A license is the best way to protect against accusations of infringement.
  • These licenses can be expensive however, and there can still be usage restrictions.

Option 3: Use copyright-free stock photos provided by a free image source

  • Public domain image sites like pixabay, pxhere, unsplash, vistacreate, pexels, and Canva offer millions of (ostensibly) copyright-free image files.
  • There's no guarantee that these images weren't previously taken from elsewhere, and then illicitly re-hosted. If you use a photo from Pixabay for example, run the file through a reverse search on Google Images to try to identify the source and determine if it is OK to use.

Option 4: Use public domain or Creative Commons-licensed works

  • Creative Commons has legally established and broadly permissive licenses that encourage free creative exchange.
  • Try: openverse, Flickr's Creative Commons, or Wikimedia Commons.
  • US-published works prior to 1928 are in the public domain.
  • Try other places like: the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, ArtSTOR, rawpixel, the Smithsonian and others.

Option 5: Create your own images using Artificial Intelligence

  • Try tools like Dall-E 2, Midjourney, Canva, Artbreeder, or Deep Dream Generator.
  • This can be helpful because it's simple, and only humans can hold intellectual property rights -- there are no copyright concerns.
  • But the use of AI is highly controversial. Artists and publishers have sued AI companies over copyright infringement through mass bot-harvesting of their intellectual property to train the companies' generative models. Further, there may be privacy concerns, erroneous or poor quality output, and the misuse of AI images for the purposes of misinformation or disinformation.