Where can I find images I can use for free? (and not get sued!)

Written by: Tom Kading

Many business people, entrepreneurs, and creatives want to build a website or publish an article but don’t have a good image to go with it. Often the first reaction is to go to Google and start searching for images. STOP, this is a BAD idea. Copyright infringement is a bad idea and furthermore, the copyright troll industry is strong! A “copyright troll” is a party that enforces copyrights for the purpose of making money. Copyright trolls often acquire a portfolio of copyrights and then actively search for infringers to bring enforcement actions against. In one instance, a group of trolls even went as far as to upload copyrighted content purely for the purpose of tempting people to illegally download the content.

Copyrights are the right to control the reproduction, publishing, selling, or distribution of a work in a matter and form. The work protected with a copyright is some creative form of expression fixed in a tangible medium. Even if you don’t register a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, you still have common law rights. By registering a copyright, you gain significant additional legal rights, primarily, the ability to take action against those who unlawfully copy your work. Examples of copyrights include a book, a rendition of a musical song, or a painting.

Like most intellectual property, the government does not enforce a copyright, rather the party owning the copyright must enforce their rights as they see fit. A registered copyright holder can bring a lawsuit in federal court against an infringer. Most of the time an infringer will receive a demand letter first, but there are other times when an infringer simply gets served with a lawsuit in federal court. There of course are exceptions and defenses to copyright infringement, but that is another topic for discussion.

Why are copyrights often enforced even though lawsuits are expensive?

There is (arguably) more incentive for a copyright holder to enforce their rights for two distinct reasons:

1. Statutory Damages: Under 17 U.S.C. 504, statutory damages are established for copyrights. What this means is that a copyright owner does not necessarily need to actually show damages in order to have a court force the infringer to pay. The minimum statutory damage is $750 per work infringed and the maximum is $30,000. If willful infringement is found, the maximum statutory damage is $150,000.

2. Attorney’s Fees: Under 17 U.S.C. 505 the prevailing party in a copyright infringement lawsuit may be entitled to attorney’s fees. Section 505 allows the court to “award a reasonable attorney’s fee to the prevailing party as part of the costs.” Without getting into too much detail, the standard under the Copyright Act has been found by courts to be much easier to obtain attorney’s fees in comparison to many other lawsuits.

Given that the federal government has established statutory damages for copyright infringement and attorney’s fees are often rewarded, the incentive to enforce copyrights is relatively strong.

Where can I find “free” images?

A “free” or “royalty-free” image is a common catchphrase, but what it actually means can vary significantly depending on the license associated with the particular image. A royalty-free image can mean that you have to make an initial payment but do not need to make additional payments based on future use. An image in the public domain is not protected by copyright and therefore free. Other images may have a Creative Commons license wherein you can use the image in certain ways but must follow licensed guidelines. When choosing a particular image for use, be careful to review the obligations, requirements, duties, or restrictions required. Each image may be different and each image source may have a different license. Some licenses may have complex requirements and some may be quite simple.

A few examples of free, royalty-free, and licensed image libraries include:

Pexel: Generally free images but have some restrictions.

iStock: Generally royalty-free but with a robust set of license requirements and restrictions.

Stocksnap: Generally Creative Commons licensed images.


Business people, entrepreneurs, and creatives should be careful as to the images they use. Infringing on a copyright can land the infringer in some hot water and cause a lot of stress. There are a variety of sources available with free, royalty-free, and licensed images. Wherever you get the image from, be sure to review the terms and conditions you are agreeing to regarding the use of the image.

Fargo Patent & Business Law is an intellectual property and business law firm. We are always happy to talk to you if you have questions about trade secrets, copyrights, trademarks, patents, or other intellectual property issues.

Disclaimer: The information in this article does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice. All information, content, and material are for general informational or educational purposes only. The information provided may not be the most up-to-date legal information, and it is recommended that readers contact their attorney to obtain advice on any particular legal matter.

Fargo Patent & Business Law is an intellectual property and business law firm. We are always happy to talk to you if you have questions about trade secrets, copyrights, trademarks, patents, or other business law issues.

Fargo Patent & Business Law, PLLC

Phone: 701.566.7571
Email: [email protected]
Website: fargopatentlaw.com

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