Understanding Image Copyright and Licenses - for Bloggers and DIY Authors

There are many beautiful, professional images on the Internet, and when you need one for your post or your book or your marketing materials, you might be in the habit of downloading and using whatever pleases you.

Unknown to many, someone can sue you for using an image they own the copyright to, when you post it on your blog or use it on your book's cover or on any of your designs. Even if you give them credit. Even if you alter it. It all depends on the license attached to the image.

To prevent this from happening, and just to be on the safe side, let's discuss what the different licenses are, and what you should look out for. Although clearly defined, it's very easy for mere mortals like us to misinterpret.


The term FREE confuses a lot of people. They don't bother to ask, free to do what? So they're misled into believing that these images can simply be downloaded and used.

Let's clarify that a bit.

What is Copyright? 

It means the right of a creator of anything to their creative work - how its used, distributed, published, etc., for a period of time. No one else can use it without the copyright owner's permission or without a Royalty. The copyright law protects the owner of any tangible work, in any medium, from other people using, modifying, or distributing their work.

It's only fair, right? Just like the copyright automatically attached to our books or articles. We certainly don't want anyone reproducing our work without us knowing and agreeing to it.

So, if you see an image that says All Rights Reserved, you must read the License attached to it and know how you can legally use the image for your own projects first.

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When an image is copyright free, it means that no one is claiming ownership of that image anymore, and it becomes available in the Public Domain. Anyone can use it for their own purposes. Change it, post it, share it - do whatever you want with it, except claim the specific image as your own work.

What about Royalties? 

Royalties are how creators, such as artists and authors, earn from their copyrighted creations. It's how they earn their income, just like the royalties we earn from Amazon, Smashwords, and other publishing platforms. 

When an image is Royalty-Free, it means that an owner of an image has given license to a site to distribute an image, without a buyer having to pay royalties to the copyright owner every single time they use it. You only have to pay a one time fee, such as when you buy the image. Shutterstock, Dreamstime, Canstock Photos, and other image distributors offer Royalty-Free images.

The problem is that ROYALTY-FREE doesn't always mean TOTALLY FREE to use however you please, unlike images in the Public Domain. The image may be Royalty-Free, but there could be a license attached to it, which dictates how the image should be used. That's the tricky part. The licenses vary, depending on the site, and a user could find it confusing. We'll discuss these licenses later.

So, whenever you download ROYALTY-FREE photos, even FREE images from these image distributors, check the License.

As an example, Dreamstime offers free to download images, BUT their license dictates that you have to credit the copyright owner. And it says so right there on the image page.

This simply means that if you'll use these images, you have to credit Dreamstime or the copyright owner, either below the image,  anywhere on the post, or in the front matter of your book. 

You have to read the fine print.

What type of Licenses should you look for?

Now that you know that FREE doesn't always mean free to use unless the images are in the PUBLIC DOMAIN, let's talk about Licenses. These licenses are present in all the images offered on your favorite image distributors or those on Google images. You have the option to buy an Extended or Enhanced License if you want to use an image without any restrictions, but why spend for that when there are many other options?

Public Domain or Creative Commons Zero (CC0) - My favorite. When an image is in the Public Domain, or has the CC0 license, it's free for all. Totally free, to do with as you wish. You should expect that a lot of people are using the image though. But you can modify them for your projects and still make them unique.

Creative Commons - You will find a variety of licenses under Creative Commons. It's the most... errr... commonly used license, and the best is Creative Commons ZERO as I mentioned. Most Creative Commons licenses require attribution - giving credit to the copyright owner. Here's a graph from Wikipedia which explains what the different licenses mean, Remember those little black icons on the left.

Aside from the awesomely fabulous CC0, some licenses require only giving credit to the copyright owner (BY). Called Attribution, it means:

You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work)

Some you can modify and give credit to the owner, but it's NOT for Commercial Use (BY-NC).

Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

Some you CAN'T Modify even if you give credit (BY-ND).

No Derivative Works. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.

Get the differences? It's a pain. That's why I take the time to bookmark sites with Public Domain and CC0 licenses for my images.

  • Can I modify it?
  • Can I use it on products or templates that I'll be selling? Is it for Commercial Use?
  • Can I use it on my logos and personal branding?
  • What type of Attribution is required? Do I need to mention the name of the copyright owner only? Link to a URL? Link to the License?
Armed with this basic knowledge, you can avoid the hassle of lawsuits arising from copyright infringement. Not many will bother going to the trouble of suing a DIY for a small project, but you never know... Why take the chance?

Hope this helped! I'll be sharing my recommended websites for DIY Authors next.

Happy Designing!

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