Image licensing guide: Can you use that image?

April 8, 2020

Images can be worth a thousand words, just don’t let them end up costing you a thousand dollars (or more $$$) by using a licensed image illegally! Images are a powerful tool to capture attention, support a message and improve the readers' experience. It’s important to be aware of licensing and ownership when pulling images from the web for use in blogs and ads.

It’s safest to presume that any image you find online is protected unless explicitly told otherwise. If you can uncover the source of the image, you can establish if there is a license such as creative commons, or if it is public domain.

Small businesses, you are NOT immune to litigation! In the 10+ years I've helped clients manage their websites, I've had at least 5 come to me for help with a lawsuit threat they've received. Most of the time, it's a complete accident. The image was pulled from a Google image search result and used on a blog post or promoted in a Facebook ad. Each business had no idea. Some of you reading this may be nodding your heads remembering your own nightmare, receiving an email or certified letter demanding compensation for illegal use of licensed images on your website.

Licensing: Important Points

  • Don't use an image on a blog or ad if you don't know what allowances/licenses it has. Using an image without proper licensing can result in expensive litigation.
  • To use an image for an ad, it must have a license that allows for commercial use.
  • If the license requires attribution, it can not be used with most ads.

Creative Commons License

Even though it’s title would imply “free picture!”, a Creative Commons license doesn't necessarily mean you can use it. The license gives the owner of the image the capacity to publish to the public whilst keeping some control over how it is used. Keep reading.

  • There might be restrictions on modification (which includes cropping or adding any text), an attribution requirement, or it may only be allowed for non-commercial use.
  • Look for stipulations.
  • Some (like have a creative commons zero license that can be used for anything.

Here is an example of a license on, a popular image sharing website:


Understanding Licenses

A quick rundown of what kind of licensed work can be used:


  1. Creative Commons commercial use allowed and no attribution requirement (mods allowed preferred)
  2. Creative Commons Zero
  3. Public Domain
  4. Anything with written permission from creator

Blogs & Non-promoted Social Posts:

  1. All of the above
  2. Creative Commons non-commercial (with caution)

How to Attribute

If you use an image that requires an attribution there is no solid rule on how to attribute. The attribution can be put underneath the image or at the end of the blog. In the attribution it is best to include:

  1. Title (if including this is awkward, it's safe to exclude.)
  2. Author
  3. Source link
  4. Creative Commons License Link (as there are 6 different types)

Below is an example of attributing credit to meet image source requirements.

Where to Find Images for your Website & Blog

We made you a list! See our list of websites with free images for use on websites, blogs, and more.

For more information:

***If creating content for a client, always err on the side of caution:

  • double check licenses on images
  • do not use non-commercial creative commons work (especially for ADS!)

Lauren L Perfors CEO & Co-Founder

Energetic and passionate small business expert who helps businesses overcome pressing digital challenges through innovative website solutions that are scaled, precise, and custom designed.
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