This article includes modified content from Where to Find Free Images and Visuals for My Blog by Robin Good.
To a struggling nonprofit or charity in need of images for its website or printed materials, the Internet might seem like one giant, free photo bank. But using copyrighted images without permission is illegal (yes, even if you're using them for a good cause).
There are plenty of places online to obtain images you can use legally. We'll show you some of these, but first, it's important to learn a few guidelines for using images obtained from the Internet.
Copyrighted Images: Don't Use Without Permission
Copyright is the legal protection extended to the authors or owners of original published and unpublished artistic and intellectual works. In the U.S., a copyright grants the author exclusive rights to make copies of the original work, to make "derivative works" that vary from the original, and to publicly perform, display, or transmit the work.
This means that it's illegal for anyone else to use the work in these ways without the author's permission. If you carry out any of these activities without permission, you are violating copyright law and may be subject to legal sanctions, including fines. To err on the side of caution, you should assume that most images you come across online are copyrighted, even if they don't have a copyright symbol (©) or legal text.
Some copyrighted images are openly licensed, such as those licensed through certain Creative Commons licenses. This means you might not need to ask permission to reprint them (see the next section for more about Creative Commons licensing).
Permission Granted: When You Can Freely Use Images
In general, there are three instances in which you can borrow images for your website or printed materials without asking permission. In most cases, this will be quicker and less of a hassle than tracking down the copyright holder of an image to get their blessing. But no matter what your source, it's good policy to try to credit the artist when possible.
When the image is in the public domain.
An image in the public domain has no legal owner. A work enters the public domain through a variety of ways: Either its copyright has expired, its copyright was never renewed, or the work has been dedicated to the public domain. Works whose copyright has expired are those that were published in the U.S. before 1923 or those that were published before 1964 whose copyright was not renewed.
If you are unsure about when a work was created or published, search the records of the U.S. Copyright Office. A notice that says "this work is dedicated to the public domain" is typically an indication that it is OK to republish without permission.
When it has been designated "copyright-free."
There are many online photo banks that advertise themselves as offering "copyright-free" images (see Browsing Free Online Image Banks, below, for some examples). While these images are generally safe to take, always read the terms and conditions before you use anything. Just because an image is free doesn't mean you can use it freely.
When the image is openly licensed.
An openly licensed image means that the copyright holder has decided to automatically grant certain reprint permissions. The most common form of openly licensing an image is to apply a Creative Commons license. There are a variety of different Creative Commons licenses, from fairly restrictive to very permissive. So if you come across an image that is licensed this way, make sure you understand the terms before you use it. You can find a list of the six main types of Creative Commons licenses on Creative Commons' website. Creative Commons provides a great search service to find content you can use (see Searching for Openly Licensed Images, below).
Browsing Free Online Image Banks
These resources offer public domain, copyright-free, or openly licensed images you can use for free on your website or for other purposes. Many just require you to link back to their website, but check with each site for specific (and current) guidelines.
More than 6,000 stock photos. Requires you to link to the website if you use an image online. A credit is required if you use an image in printed or other offline material.
A searchable image bank of free stock photos. Credit is required.
From Old Books
More than 3,100 images in the public domain (unless otherwise noted) scanned from books. Requests notification and that you to link to the website if you use an image.
From Old Books
More than 55,000 free, high-resolution digital stock photographs and reference images for corporate or public use. Linking to the website or crediting images is requested, but not required.
National Park Service
About 13,000 images of parks available in the public domain for use, free of charge. Requires you to credit the National Park Service.
National Park Service
A stock photography community and framework whose purpose is to allow photographers to share and protect their works through Creative Commons licensing. Requires you to credit the photographer.
A repository of about 2,000 free public-domain photos organized by category. Unless an image is clearly marked as copyrighted, you can assume it is free to use. Linking to the website or crediting images is requested, but not required.
Includes more than 350,000 high-quality photos taken by amateur photographers from around the world. Many photos can be freely used without requiring you to credit the photographer, but you should confirm this for photos you want to use.
A stock photography resource with more than 29,000 images for personal and noncommercial use. Linking to the website or crediting images is not required.
A collection of photos sorted by basic colors instead of the usual categories (white is in the "everything else" category). You can use images any way you like, but don't redistribute them as photos. Linking to the website or crediting images is not required.
An art museum, clip art, and photo gallery with about 1.3 million "exhibits." All images are free, but the site requires that you credit the authors and Visipix near the photo.
Searching for Openly Licensed Images
You can also find free images for your website or other projects by searching for openly licensed images with Flickr or the Creative Commons Searchtool.
Flickr has a worldwide community of contributors with more than 200 million photos that use Creative Commons licenses. With the large amount of content available, it's difficult not to find something that fits your needs.
You can use Flickr's Creative Commons page to find photos by license. You can also specify the type of licensing you need in the advanced search.
Creative Commons Search
This tool aggregates image search engines into one interface so you can easily locate content on the web published under a Creative Commons license. You'll still want to make sure that the images it finds are openly licensed, to be on the safe side.
Creative Commons Search
Using Other Image Search Engines (Cautiously)
You can also search for images with these image search tools, but you should assume the images are copyrighted unless you can verify otherwise.
Image: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock