How to Use Free Stock Photos without Getting Sued

A picture is worth a thousand words” But do you know that the same picture can cost you thousands in fines if it violates the copyright and fair use laws?

Images are an essential asset in marketing. By incorporating them with text, you can maintain your reader’s attention for a more extended period. The human brain can also process visual information quickly, thus helping you get the brand’s message across with ease.

Fortunately, the internet is full of resources offering Unsplash that enables us to fill the visual gap in our content without spending a penny.

But here is the deal: You CANNOT use just any image you find on the internet for commercial purposes. And while it may tempt you to pick up pictures from Google Image Search, I personally think it’s a very risky choice – especially if you are not aware of the dangers.

Understanding the ‘Catch’ in Free Photos

Most pictures available on free stock sites such as Pixabay and Unsplash have ownership rights surrendered by the photographer. This means that the users are allowed to copy, adapt, and distribute the images as they require, without attributing them to the author or the website.

However, there are certain ‘rights’ within a photo that many photographers are not aware of. And using them on your website without proper consent can land you in dangerous waters.

Example of such rights include:

  • Model rights (Pictures with identifiable people)
  • Property rights (includes government building, private properties, and landmarks)
  • Trademark or logo
  • Copyright ©

In simple words, the photographer must take legal authorization from each person present in the photos. Only then, you can use the pictures without any worry.

Also, many free photo websites do not have proper policing procedures in place to ensure the images are from the copyright holders. So if you end up using a stolen image, it could land you in trouble.

Use free stock photos without getting sued

Photo: Domenico Loia

What Happens If I Use An Image Without A ‘Model Release?’

Using a photo without permission of the ‘models’ can put you at risk of a lawsuit.

Surprisingly, some of the leading free stock photo sites don’t collect ‘model releases’ from the contributors. Instead, they trust the photographers to have obtained the necessary paperwork – but fail to validate the facts.

Unfortunately, they are not accountable for the same. The websites also mention it in the fine prints of their Terms and Conditions. This means that any legal formality that takes place from using a photo without proper permission will be addressed to the user – and that is you!

So, Can I Never Use Free Stock Photos?

In an ideal world, most of us would prefer using our own photos instead of depending on stock image sites. Using customized images will protect you from potential infringement. It will also add a unique and personal touch to the photographs that will resonate more with the brand’s image.

But if you use LOTS of images. Or don’t have the budget and the resources to create your own – then you can always use free stock photos. Just follow the tips below to stay on the safe side!

Verify the Photos for ‘Model Release’

When using a free photo, take a thorough look at the picture.

Is there a clearly identifiable person in the photo? Even if the face is not detectable, does the image show any distinguishable mark – such as a tattoo or hairstyle that can make it easy to recognize a person? 

If so, you need to ensure proper consent for using their photos. And if there are multiple people/animals in the photograph, obtain model releases for each before utilizing them in your website.

The same protocol is followed for pets. For example, you do not need to look for authorization if there is a picture of a street dog. But if the dog has an owner, the photographer can only release the image after taking permission in writing from the owner.

Recheck the Release for Properties

A property release is required if the photo you use shows a recognizable property. This rule includes businesses, apartments, houses, cars, and even privately held artwork.

Let’s say you pick up a picture of a house owned by me from a free stock photo site And. you use the same image in various marketing areas without a moment’s hesitation.

Until…I come across the photo and decide to pursue legal action for using my property in your commercial activity – without my awareness and permission.

The same goes for amusement parks, cinemas, museums, shopping malls, and even sporting grounds. In fact, pictures of places like the Eiffel Tower, Universal Studios, and even Disney Theme Parks cannot be in advertisements without proper authorization.

Be Wary of Trademarks and Logos

A trademark is defined as a word, slogan, image, or a combination of all that connects a product with its brand/maker.

For example, the swoosh on Nike sneakers or the specific drawings of Colonel Sanders on KFC products are all trademarks – and under no circumstances can be used for commercial purposes by an unauthorized party.

Doing so can put you in serious legal trouble as it can damage the company’s reputation. It would also seem like they are endorsing your product or service, which is a huge violation!

Look at the Licenses

Before using photos from free stock photo sites, make sure that the picture falls under the public domain or Creative Commons license (CC0).

The license certifies that the image creators have waived off all rights of their work. This gives you the freedom to copy, modify, and utilize the photo in both – personal and commercial format without permission.

Most websites offering free stock photos also don’t require you to give credit to the owners. However, it is an ethical practice to give attribution, nevertheless.

Avoid Picking Random Images from Google Search

Pictures that appear in Google Image search results are not free for taking. They belong to people or brands and are protected by copyright.

Avoid picking random images from google search

Photo:  Morning Brew

In fact, Google is just playing the role of a host and displaying the appropriate images according to its search algorithm. When it comes to the Google Image Filter, you have to keep in mind that Google is not offering licenses. It is just filtering the labels against the images it has found with the pictures. So you have to be careful when using these images, especially for commercial purposes.

Follow the Best Practices to Stay Safe

When using free stock photos, make sure to always read and adhere to the licensing details mentioned on the free stock websites. If you spot a violation – or dubious about a particular image, simply refrain from using it and move on towards other options.

And if a copyright holder requests you to take down a photo, remove it immediately to avoid complications.

Being extra careful when searching for a free stock photo can save you lots of unnecessary inconveniences in the long run.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

About the author:  Amos Struck  is a publisher and entrepreneur in the stock imagery field. He focuses on providing knowledge and solutions for buyers, contributors, and agencies, aiming at contributing to the growth and development of the industry.  He is a recurrent speaker at Photokina Official Stage, and an industry consultant at StockPhotoInsight. Amos is passionate about technology, marketing, and visual imagery.

Top Photo: Taras Shypka


My name is Outmane, I am a designer and artist.

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