I have to admit, I review and publish blog content with images every day, and I had to go back and do some significant research before I felt I could accurately write this post. Because I found a few websites that provide free images without any need for attribution, I don’t have to worry about using images illegally or incorrectly anymore.

But, if you’re like I was just a few years ago, you may be wondering what different copyright or licensing rules apply to you as you look for images to use on social media, your website, or otherwise online. What follows is a brief explanation with heavy copy-pasting and attribution to sites and people who are better at explaining this than I am.

Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement: Both Bad, But Different

What is the difference between these two offenses and how can we avoid them?

Sarah Hawkins writes for LifeHacker:

While it is difficult to detect visual plagiarism, when it does occur it’s not a legal problem. Plagiarism is an ethical concern that may have other elements of intellectual property theft tied with it. Copyright infringement, on the other hand, is illegal and carries with it potentially significant consequences. Plagiarism can be avoided by providing attribution and giving credit, copyright infringement can not. (Image via Shutterstock.)

Attribution Does Not Make it Right

Taking another person’s image or graphic and giving them a “shout out,” linkback, or any other type of attribution does not negate copyright infringement. Common sense may say that an artist wants exposure for their work, but we’re talking about the law here and common sense doesn’t always parallel. Copyright law gives the copyright holder the right to decide where their work is published and maybe they don’t want their work on your site, in your book, included in your newsletter or distributed to your social media network. It’s not for us to question why they wouldn’t want “exposure.”

This is why you can’t just go to Google, search for whatever image you want, download it, and use it for your content. The most common images that show up in Google are images attached to news organizations, and those images are protected by copyright law. Using those in your content may result in a nasty, lawsuit-threatening email.

(Which is why it’s important to use the sites I’ve listed here.)

But even with free images, you have to be careful that you attribute where necessary. Not all free images require attribution, but many do.

Understand the Licensing Rules for Free Images

Creative Commons is an organization that works with individuals and companies to make creative works available to be used by many. They say on their website:

The Creative Commons copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional “all rights reserved” setting that copyright law creates. Our tools give everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work.

Here are six different Creative Commons licenses as explained by Creative Commons:

1. Attribution

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.

2. Attribution-ShareAlike

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.

3. Attribution-NoDerivs

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Now you can see why I don’t even bother with images that require Creative Commons attribution if I can help it. It can be a bit confusing, at least for me.

Free, No-Attribution-Necessary Images

Believe it or not, there is a Creative Commons license for images that are free, need no attribution, and have no commercial/non-commercial restrictions. It is called “Creative Commons Zero (CC0).”

These are the only images I use anymore if I can help it. These are the images you find at Pexels, Pixabay, and other sites.

Unsure what the license rules are for the site you’re using to find images? The site should have a tab or page someplace that explains the rights for the images on their site. For some sites, like Flickr, the usage rights vary from image to image, so if you use a site like that, be vigilant.

On Pexels’ “License” page, they say the following:

It’s hard to understand complex licenses that is why all photos on Pexels are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. This means the pictures are completely free to be used for any legal purpose.

The pictures are free for personal and even for commercial use.

You can modify, copy and distribute the photos.

All without asking for permission or setting a link to the source. So, attribution is not required.

The only restriction is that identifiable people may not appear in a bad light or in a way that they may find offensive, unless they give their consent. You should also make sure the depicted content (people, logos, private property, etc.) is suitable for your application and doesn’t infringe any rights.

The CC0 license was released by the non-profit organization Creative Commons (CC). Get more information about Creative Commons images and the license on the official license page.

This is the most hassle-free way to use images on the web. If you don’t have time to sort through images and image rights, find a few sites that have licenses like this, bookmark them, and use them as much as you can.

Again, if you aren’t sure how to find those sites, please refer to my previous post on this subject here.

Chris Martin

Chris Martin is the Co-Creator and Chief Content Officer at LifeWay Social as well as a Content Strategist at LifeWay. He and his wife Susie live outside Nashville, TN.