Free Photo Sharing Sites Can Cost You Dearly

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By Don Sturgill

“Royalty Free” does not mean Really FREE

I saw it again today – and it is a dangerous, dangerous practice: someone announced a “great find” in a popular G+ Community for bloggers. He then gave a link to a photo sharing site providing “Free Royalty Free” photos.

“These are free to download,” he urged, “Check it out.”

Within a few minutes, other bloggers were chiming in …

“First, click on ‘Royalty Free,’ then the image you want. You will see a ‘large comp’ option listed. That’s the one you want.”

Rights management issues and photo sharing sites

Google search free photos

FREE photo sharing! (Top Google results)

It’s a serious problem — and it’s not limited to amateur blogs, nor is it always on purpose. I’ve seen corporate websites featuring unlicensed photographs. Violations abound. Take a quick trip through Pinterest, for instance. Do you think everyone who posts there has secured the rights to the photo or illustration? How about Facebook? Google Plus?

Take it a step further: Do you figure it is okay to clip a photo from Pinterest and use it on your website?

Think about it: where do all those images originate? Many of them come from photo sharing websites — and some of those sites draw you in by copious use of the most attention-getting word in the English language: FREE!

It is a runaway problem and an attorney’s dream. Creative work online is usually simple to copy and share. And once the first person passes it on without attribution, the snowball starts rolling and the theft can grow exponentially – whether any of the participants “feels like” they are stealing or not … the result is the same.

PLEASE NOTE: This is not meant to be a discussion about whether or not rights management is the loving thing to do. It’s about legal reality. And it is about keeping YOUR BUTT out of a bind. And … if your website happens to be a corporate or business site, I can guarantee you there is an attorney somewhere, rubbing sweaty palms together, licking her lips and looking for you to screw up. Moreover, there are artists with legitimate concerns. They work hard to produce their photos and illustrations. Why do you think the fruit of their labor should be yours for the taking? Buy a camera, for criminently’s sake. Great photos don’t often come easily.

The wonderful world of “everything is free”

Like a lot of people, I journeyed merrily down the webosphere, pulling a photo from here (hey, it’s okay to copy photos from news sites, right?) and an illustration there (all clip art is free to use, isn’t it?)

I might still be operating from “Ain’t it great that all this stuff is free” bliss, had a friend not sent me a link to an article that got my attention.

“Hey, Don, you’re a writer. Did you hear about what happened to this woman?”

You could owe a photographer a ton of money for one innocent rights management error

Like me, author Roni Loren was blissfully writing her way to fortune and fame, without really thinking about rights management and photo sharing. Following what seemed to be the majority solution, she posted a standard disclaimer on a Legal page and went merrily on her way. Many websites still do the same thing, posting one of several versions of what is thought to offer protection:

UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED, the owner of this website does not own any images posted on this site. Copyright to all photographs is held by the rightful owners. If there is an image appearing on this blog that belongs to you, and you do not want it to appear here, please contact the webmaster at ohmygodihopethisworks@helpmeplease with a link to the image and it will be promptly removed.

That should do it, should it not? No problems with rights management issues here.

All was fine until Roni received a take-down notice from a photographer. It seems that even though she had found his work on a Google search, and it seemed to be fair game (after all, her disclaimer was evident on her site), the owner of the work didn’t like her using it without permission. She quickly removed the image, as requested.

But it didn’t end there.

The photographer figured he should be paid for the use of his material. Roni sought legal counsel. The issue stressed and stretched her in ways she didn’t think needed attention. And, when the smoke cleared, it cost her a tidy chunk of cash.

Rights management terms you may see on photo sharing sites

Says Roni, “It wasn’t fun. But the fact of the matter is, I was in the wrong. Unknowingly. But that doesn’t matter. And my guess is that many, many of you are doing the same thing I was doing without realizing it’s a copyright violation.”

You see, just because you take a screen shot of a photo, that doesn’t mean you “took the photo.” And just because someone else posts a photo on their site (apparently, with impunity), it doesn’t mean you are free to use it on yours. And — this is a big one — even if the photo sharing website broadcasts ROYALTY FREE PHOTOS, it doesn’t mean those photos really are FREE.

Here are some important terms to know:

Royalty Free: Don’t let the “free” part fool you. This simply means that, once you pay for the rights to use the photo or illustration (as spelled out in the agreement), you can continue using the same image again and again — without having to pay “royalties” or licensing fees for each event or period of time.

Rights Managed: These images are purchased on a one-time use only basis. Each subsequent use requires a separate royalty fee. This is an area requiring special scrutiny. Traditionally, it would be applied to a magazine. You use a model’s photo in the January issue. If you want to use it again for September, you pay again. Things aren’t so simple on the internet, though. If I purchase one-time usage rights to a photo, can I use it on a website? I can embed it in only one article, but that page will (hopefully) be loaded time and time again.

Comp Photo: Don’t get your mouth watering. “Comp” does not mean “Complimentary” in this case. This is a designer’s term for “comprehensive artwork” — a “Comp” is a composite design. It is a trial layout. Stock photo sites love to provide “Free Comps” to design teams. The hope is that they will love the work so much they will come back and purchase it. You can get sued from here to eternity by downloading a “Free Comp” and using it on your website without permission. Don’t do it.

Are any “free photo sharing websites” really free?

Not many. But some.

First, a quick pause for sanity. Most of the scam sites bounce you to stock photo sites. Consider this professional advice from Conversion Max’s own Shawna Duvall : Why in the would would you want to use a stock photo anyway?

The field varies considerably. On one end are the bloodsuckers. They love to use the FREE word, but it’s sham. What they really offer is over-priced stock photos (that they may or may not have rights to themselves). By the time you figure out you’ve been had, they’ve collected your contact information and maybe even credit card number. There is a special place in Hell reserved for scam artists.

When you get sucked into chasing after something FREE … and led down a merry path of providing information galore, with no further mention of the great FREE stuff you are longing for … STOP.

There are plenty of reputable sites out there, you just have to kiss some frogs to find them.

Here are some examples of (maybe) free photo sharing sites:

This is a great site … but you must read the fine print.

1. morgueFile

The name originally referred to the file used to store notes and records about stalled-out criminal investigations. The moniker spread to newspapers, where clips of articles about people with klout would be kept for rapid access in case of the person’s passing (or other noteworthy act). In common usage, a morgue file is a place to keep any number of interesting items one may want to use for reference, and that’s sure the case here.

BUT … be careful.

Says the morgueFile: Search morgueFile for free reference images. Yes, they’re all completely free.

Says the About page: Yes, the morguefile images are really free to use in creative projects, although they are not in the public domain. You are still responsible for the legal content of the images including model releases and property releases. AND “If you would like to use the image in a blog post, we recommend contacting the photographer and providing a by line under the photo with the photographer’s name. This is generally agreed to be acceptable.”

Should you find your way to the footer, you will find this: Morguefile, where photo reference lives. This morgue file contains free high resolution digital stock photographs and reference images for either corporate or public use. The purpose of this site is to provide free image reference material for illustrators, comic book artist, designers, teachers and all creative pursuits.

(Are any other writers out there going nuts yet over how they aren’t consistent with the spelling of their brand?)

morguefile photo choices

Free or not Free? Your choice.

NOTE: Like most other “free” sites, Morgue File posts stock images alongside their free images. My guess is they have an affiliate deal with the paid sites, and their Privacy page seems to confirm that: The morguefile does maintain relationships with outside companies and websites but your only contact with them is if you click on a banner or link and are redirected to their site.

Okay, morgueFile isn’t a perfect free photo site, but it is one of my favorites.

Next, the standby site everyone loves … but, again, be careful.


Everything is free on Flickr, isn’t it? Plenty of people think so … but, that is definitely not the case. Moreover, it is difficult to figure out exactly what the rules are. To be fair, Flickr was meant to be an online photo album for social sharing and comments, not a place to find photos for your blog … doesn’t seem like it would take much forethought, though, to wonder “What if?”

In the FAQ’s, Flickr says, If there is an image you’d like to use, look for the “Request to license” link near the license on the photo page. We’ve partnered with Getty Images who will review the image, determine if it’s a good fit for licensing through them, and work out all the details if so.

That doesn’t sound like FREE to me.

Here’s the trickr for Flickr:

Run a Flickr search. Any search. I’m using “sunset ocean” for the clips in this article. See the Advanced Search link at the top right of the results page? Click on that, then scroll down to the Creative Commons preferences. Check the “

WARNING: Once you run an advanced search, the options automatically switch back to full throttle. Meaning: after every search, be sure to choose Advanced Search then CC as your preference again … or you could be sadly (and expensively) mistaken when you view the results.

Flickr Creative Commons

Which to choose?

The safest way to find free photos on the internet

Here are two more important licensing term to know:

Creative Commons (aka CC):

Here’s something you may not have realized: Creative Commons is not a rights management term, per se, it is a non-profit organization. Those who wish to use one of the Creative Commons licenses are best advised to work through the CC licensing tool to determine which license best suits the user’s intentions.

Creative Commons tool

Creative Commons license selection tool

Public Domain: Work declared as being in the “public domain” is not affected by copyright or licensing restrictions of any kind. The public domain classification can occur by choice (I take a photo and release it into the public domain), or it can occur  naturally after a copyright claim has expired.

Shrewd “authors” often find manuscripts classified as public domain, then reprint them for sale. Any time you see a webinar promising to show you how to publish a book without needing to know how to write, chances are public domain treasure hunting is a big part of it.

Where can you find public domain photos?

Here, again, be careful. There’s a ton of websites out there promising free photos from the public domain — but are using the words just to draw you in and extract some of your hard-earned cash. Most of them, that I’ve seen, should be avoided. I know … FREE!

Yeah, right.

There are two places I trust above all … and the first is suspicious.

Wikimedia Commons: It’s about as close to a really cool place as you can get: plenty of photos and illustrations, all with minimum hype. Who at Wikimedia checks each photo for an accurate description of rights, though? Do you think, “Well, I found it on Wikimedia,” would be a sufficient defense if you get sued by an irate photographer? Somehow, I’m thinking, “Probably not.”

Here’s an example. Let’s use my “sunset ocean search.” It serves up plenty of photos, and I choose this one: File:Ocean beach sunset.jpg

I’m told, on that page, something that is music to my ears … it’s FREE!

wikimedia free photo

Wikimedia says it, so it must be true … right?

If you think I’m getting a little paranoid here — you’re right. The axiom about “Better safe than sorry” definitely comes to mind. To err on the side of caution, then, I’ll check the reference. Wikimedia says “Image from Public domain images website.” Now, I’m really scared.

Checking the the referenced site out a bit, though, I am relieved to see that there are ads, but apparently no registration requirements. I am concerned about the overall look of the site and the absence of Contact information. Scrolling on down, I see the photographer listed as “Jon Sullivan,” along with a note saying “If you are going to publish, redistribute this image on the Internet place this link” [link back to the website].”

Knowing what I know about the public domain, there should be no hitches at all. The website wants me to link back to them, but I am under no obligation. (I could be wrong about that, but I believe that to be an inherent part of public domain works.)

Is this a safe photo to use?

Here’s my consternation: I have no way of knowing for sure that Jon Sullivan actually took this photograph or that he agrees it should be in the public domain. All I have is a statement on a somewhat shady-looking website.

What should I do?

Depending on your comfort level with risk, you can take what you find at face value, or you can investigate until you find solid source information. Personally, I would not use this photo without further proof of the rights release.

There are better options.

For instance, let’s say you want an astronomy photograph. Why not try NASA? Government websites are an excellent source of photographs — and surely they are all in the public domain, right?

Nope, but there is hope.

I simply run a search query: nasa photographs site:gov to find the NASA Multimedia page. From there, assuming I have half an hour to search for rights information, I can locate the Using NASA Imagery and Linking to NASA Web Sites page.

There, I read something only a government writer can compose — a wonderful bit of tripe that commits the agency to nothing really:

NASA still images; audio files; video; and computer files used in the rendition of 3-dimensional models, such as texture maps and polygon data in any format, generally are not copyrighted. You may use NASA imagery, video, audio, and data files used for the rendition of 3-dimensional models for educational or informational purposes, including photo collections, textbooks, public exhibits, computer graphical simulations and Internet Web pages. This general permission extends to personal Web pages.

Now I feel better. I can “generally” use the photos for my own purposes. Great.

Okay, let’s go find some really truly free photos and live dangerously

Each of us must arrive at our own bottom line and set our own guidelines for using photographs found ANYWHERE on the internet. Here’s where I’m at on the topic; I’m not saying this is the perfect policy, only that it is mine. I would love to hear your suggestions and admonitions.

Henceforth, I will strive to:

  1. Determine the the source of a photograph and ascertain the photographer’s wishes concerning his or her work.
  2. Follow those wishes exactly.
  3. Save the photo with a file name that tells me the basics of the situation. For instance: “wiki_pd” tells me I obtained the work from Wikimedia Commons and the work is in the public domain.
  4. Link the photographs I use to the source.
  5. Caption the photographs appropriately, always giving credit where possible.

In closing, here are some free photo websites and free photo tools I trust most. I’m not saying every photograph on any site is free for the taking. I’m only providing a starter list for those who need one — in my experience these are all princesses, not frogs.

My final word: Be careful. It is super easy to get your finger in a wringer out there. Before using any photograph, ask yourself, “Would I join Mitt Romney and bet $10,000 on this 🙂

I’ve mentioned several potential sites already. Here’s some more. These come with minimum traps. You are welcome (and encouraged) to note your own favorite free photo sites in the Comments section (disclaimer: that would make me very happy).

Google Advanced Image Search: This isn’t a free photo site; it’s a darned good tool for finding them, though. Scroll down to usage rights, close your eyes and pick one. I am pretty sure it would take a Supreme Court decision to ascertain exactly what constitutes “commercial” use and whether not a simple act like cropping means the photo was “modified.” Any copyright attorneys in the crowd?

Creative Commons Search: Another excellent search tool — this one for CC (creative commons) work only. The Creative Commons organization is quick to point out that this is not a search engine. Rather, it “offers convenient access to search services provided by other independent organizations.” Choose a site and search away. Don’t forget the earlier warning about Flickr.

Open Clip Art: Do you love clip art? This site says it is 100% public domain. I love that.

Smart PhotoStock: This one comes from guest blogging guru, Ms. Ann Smarty. It’s just one more of the tools Ann provides for bloggers. Another disclaimer: I work for Ann as editor in the My Blog Guest Elite Gallery and as a G+ Community moderator. I would be remiss not to mention this site, though. Ann is a true gift to the online universe.

Library of Congress: Spend a day, month, or year browsing this collection … and you still may not get through it. It will take a little digging to figure out how to access these photographs, but the finds are well worthwhile.

I leave you with this. First, a quote from the Library of Congress website: Rights assessment is your responsibility.

Then, this photograph from Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive. Carol Highsmith made her decades of work available to you and me, donating this beautiful collection to the Library of Congress.

Thank you, Carol.

And that, my folks is how to find really, truly, absolutely FREE photographs to use on your blog or website.

Carol Highsmith photo

From the Carol M. Highsmith Archive at the Library of Congress (public domain)


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Don Sturgill

Writer, Dreamer, Believer and Friend of Entrepreneurs, Don Sturgill is a freelance writer and the author of Roadmap to Freedom (Dream Into It), the field manual that helps entrepreneurs turn ideas into reality … fast. Don is from Bend, Oregon, PPC capital of the world. His home on the web is at

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