The short answer to this question is no. The longer answer to this question is maybe, but probably not.

Let me clarify something that I think needs clarifying for a lot of people. Pictures and images that you see when you’re searching Google are not public domain. They aren’t free and up for grabs for anyone who wants to use it.

Google indexes websites, but also indexes images from those websites. So when you see images in Google, that’s an image that someone put on their website. It could be an image they took, an image they purchased, art they created, etc. You may not know the origin even.

Just because you find it online and it doesn’t specifically say you can’t use it, doesn’t mean you can use that photo. If you are walking on the sidewalk and find a bike, you wouldn’t assume that just because it was on the sidewalk it was free for you to use, right?

I am not a lawyer.

Amy Masson, Web Developer
Photo of me being a website guru, and not being a lawyer.

I can’t clarify that enough, I’m not qualified to give you legal advice. But I can tell you the basics of how copyright works when you publish something. If you publish something, you own the copyright. You don’t have to file anything with any copyright company, you don’t have to trademark it. If you publish it (and it’s yours, not something you took from someone else), then you are the copyright holder as soon as it’s published.

Publishing a website, a blog post, or page on your website is considered publishing. If you post original content and images on your website, those belong to you. It doesn’t have to be on the New York Times to be considered published. It doesn’t have to be in a book you can find in the library or on Amazon. Putting it on your website is enough.

And that is the same for anyone else who posts their photos on the Internet. They are sharing them with you to see, not with you to use. So no, you can’t download it and use it for your own website, your newsletter, your materials, or anything else.

Actually, maybe you can use it

If someone posts a photo on the Internet, and you really like it and want to use it, you can’t just download it and use it. But you can definitely ask the owner. This is a step that seems difficult for people to want to take, but it’s pretty easy, doesn’t require a lot of work, and works. People are often flattered when you want to use their photos. One of the easiest ways to find out if you can use it is to simple ask.

Example: I was working on a newsletter for a real estate company, and they wanted to cover a really cool skiing event that had happened, but they didn’t have any photos. I did some searching and found a super cool image to use. But of course, I couldn’t just use it. Instead, I emailed the owner and explained what I wanted to use the photo for, and asked if he would be okay with us using it in the newsletter. I even offered to give him a photo credit. And he responded yes.

If you ask, you might be surprised with the answer you get. And always offer to give a credit to the photographer for using their work.

What about photos you find on sites like Flickr?

Many many years ago, a client came to me with two photos she had found on Flickr and said she’d like to use them on her website, and she read the copyright on the photos and that she believed it was safe for her to use.

My non-lawyer advice was this: even if you think the license says it’s okay, ask anyway. Because I bet very few of the people uploading photos to Flickr are paying attention to what the license says on their photos or what their copyright settings are set to. She asked, and the owner was fine with it. So it all worked out, and there was no trouble.

The worst that can happen is that they can say no.

What can happen if you use photos without permission?

I could share example after example of this. The owner of the photo can sue you, although they probably won’t. But they can, and they would likely win if they do. I’ve known more than one website owner who uploaded a photo to their website that they found in Google, the photographer found it and sent them a bill. They didn’t ask to have the photo removed, just sent a bill. For $500. Do you want to pay that kind of bill for using a photo without permission?

The moral of the story is, don’t take photos you find online and use them without permission.

Free Photos!

Guess what, I have good news! Just because you can’t randomly download images that are indexed in Google on your website, that doesn’t mean there aren’t good places to find free photos! I have lots of resources for free stock photos.

All of these websites provide free photos you can download and use, both personally and commercially, free of charge, with no attribution required. (But generally attribution is appreciated.)

The trouble with these stock photo websites is that because they are free, a lot of people use them. So the image you find and use may not be original.

This picture in particular is one that I see all over the Internet. It’s very popular.

That’s the main problem with using free stock photos – other sites will use those images too.

Of course, you can pay for images too

Another option for images for your website and other materials is just to pay for it. And there is no shortage of stock photos available you can buy. We personally source photos from Adobe Stock, but you can use sites like Shutterstock, iStock Photo, 123rf or others.

But of course, other people can find and buy the same images, so if you’re looking for unique, that may not be the best option.

Take your own photos

This is one piece of advice that I can give you that will give you original photos with no copyright issues. Take your own or have a professional photographer take photos for you. Not only can you do it yourself, but the photos you get are likely to be more original. And studies have shown that people respond better to real, personal photos than stock photos anyway. So that’s a win for you!

Need help with graphics for your website? Get in touch and get a quote!

Amy Masson

Amy is the co-owner, developer, and website strategist for Sumy Designs. She's been making websites with WordPress since 2006 and is passionate about making sure websites are as functional as they are beautiful.

1 Comment

  1. Ben Cotton on February 20, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Google Image Search has filters for searching on use terms. And the Creative Commons Search page ( has a great multi-site search engine that can find usable content.

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