Skip to main content

Images on the Web: An Appeal to Caution

by Cowboy Bob Sorensen

Substantially edited 11 June 2020, don't blame me for Blogger's cut-ups with spacing and such. Edited again 5 March 2022.

People like to use images in articles, posts and so on. Some feel that it is essential, especially since readers are attracted to an article with an image on Facebook or other social media. It's almost a requirement. Unfortunately, some are risking serious trouble. Mixed messages from image owners complicate matters; is it available for use, or not, and when?

None of what is written here should be construed as legal advice. What I am doing is recommending that we act within the law to the best of our abilities using better information, reducing assumptions, minimizing mistakes and carelessness, and putting aside arrogance.

You may want to stop and get a snack and soda, this is not one of my short articles.

Sunset over clouds on Lake Superior / freeimages / Archbob

Wrong Beliefs

Let's dispel some of the myths and excuses, several of which I used to believe.

Images on the web are like butterflies: they're free
That is completely untrue, but a common assumption. Just because something is posted does not mean that you or I have the right to use it. When an image is posted, the owner is not surrendering it to public domain, it is immediately copyrighted, whether formally filed or not. Are you certain that you have the right to use an image any way you see fit? The safest rule of thumb is "when in doubt, go without".

Weblogs, Pinterest, social media, forums and so on are replete with posted images that technically are stolen from the copyright holder. Some sites confuse the issue by giving you buttons so you can share the images to social media, so they have no business complaining if people use those share buttons. But some sites reserve the right to revoke sharing. How they could get thousands of shared images taken down, I have no idea.

Christians using images from pay-for-use stock sites like Shutterstock, iStock and so on without payment, complete with the copyright watermark, are way out of line! Yes, I have seen pictures like this one on Christian sites, and I'm distressed at the ignorance (arrogance?) of the people posting them. That is theft, cheapness and bad testimony. However, I admit that on rare occasions when I cannot find the actual image owner, I will occasionally use an image that I just can't live without — especially if it is scattered all over the web. Fair Use often applies.

They don't care. Besides, I'm giving them free advertising.
It doesn't matter. You can't assume that they'll just let it slide. It may very well be true that if you give credit, the image owner will be happy as a clam. But you may be sued. Of course, lawsuits are a hassle for both parties, and the plaintiff would need to show how s/he was damaged by your use of images, but paying a defense lawyer, even if no harm was done to the plaintiff, can be expensive and time consuming. However, I really don't think many people care if you download an image for your own use, such as a desktop background picture, personally-printed calendar, social media profile image, or to e-mail to a friend.

When I began Piltdown Superman (which usually links to other articles), I used images from the article to which I was linking. After all, I'm sending people to their site. Wrong! Very often, the images they have are their own, or purchased from stock sites. The contract is not with me, and I did not have any rights to those images. This article has an image at the top from a pay site, and they gave credit as well. 
It's non-commercial use.
What does that mean, exactly? I have sites for education and information, and I do not make money (my creation science ministry actually costs me money sometimes). When looking up "non-commercial use", I found some vague and conflicting information. Someone needs to explain it to me. In simple terms. But right now, I think it means that the site owner is not making money from the image, or the image is not helping the site owner get money. Glad I never monetized. 
I'm not making any money on it.

This does not matter either. If it is not explicitly free to use or if you do not have permission, drop it and get it from someplace safe.
It's not uploaded, I hotlinked the picture.

That's even worse. Hotlinking is bad for several reasons, including bandwidth theft because you're taking a free ride and costing someone else bandwidth (and possibly even money). There are times that it is acceptable, such as when when a site has an "embed" or similar option.
Nobody said I couldn't have it, and it's a public upload site!

Many sites allow users to upload whatever they wish. In the Terms of Service (does anyone read those, really?) users promise that they have the right to upload the image. If you look at some sites such as Imgur, there is a "Report" button for the copyright owner to get the image taken back down. This linked image is quite likely copyright infringement. You need some common sense, experience and investigation in these matters. No, the Fox network may not take action about all of those Simpsons images strewn about the web unless someone is making money from them. But do you want to take that chance?
I distorted it so the owner isn't losing money.
That was one of my self-deceptions, of which I have repented some time ago. I would take an image, creatively alter it so the owner wasn't losing a sale, and use it to decorate my posts. Later, I learned that this was still stealing because I really had no right to use it. Someone found one of his images and sent me a simple take-down message. I immediately complied.

There's a tricky area where something is changed so much, it's a "derivative" and considered a new piece. I suggest you fully understand the concept before trying it.
The incident above involved something that could be considered a derivative, but it was easier to comply.

There are millions of sites on the web, and millions of people posting on social media. They won't catch me.

Wanna bet? Like I said, it happened to me. Once. And I got out of that one easily. But there are people who will report stolen images on social media, or simply complain about it. I saw a creationist use an image, and an atheist who is known for trolling and looking for things to complain about pointed out that the image was the property of National Geographic. This was probably due to the Page owner's carelessness and assumptions such as the ones we're examining now. 

Sure, National Geographic may never know, and may not even care, but Christians need to be more careful so we do not damage our testimony. If mistakes happen, apologize and take down the picture if you find out that you do not have the right to use it.
If you're surprised by a challenge, "Hey, that's mine and you can't have it!", they do have to give reasonable evidence of being the owner of the image in question. This can be minimized by using safer sources, which we'll discuss later.
They'll just have it taken down.

Yes, and you can have your site suspended until a DMCA dispute is settled. That's where the image owner says, "Hey, cut it out! That's mine and I didn't give you permission to use it!" I have had my own images stolen and used for defamatory purposes, and filed such claims myself. Depending on the site hosting service, the results are mixed.
The heck with that, it's Fair Use!

Yes, that's often a preemptive strike that people will use. (It's amusing in a way, because this is an American principle and I have seen some Brits consider themselves experts in international copyright law.) People will take it to mean, "I can do whatever I want because it's Fair Use". 

Dead wrong, Reginald. There are several criteria for Fair Use, and grabbing an image for the purposes of libel and ridicule are not among them. If there is no other image available or a specific image is essential to an article, it can be utilized. Also, Fair Use is not an excuse, but rather, it is a defense to use in a court proceedings. Do you need that expense and expenditure of time?

News items and publicity photos often fall under Fair Use laws, but you need to use caution on those as well. Here is an example, also, see the Fair Use message in small print at the bottom of this ICR article.
When I am not confident that it applies to what I'm doing, I leave it alone. Maybe a nice picture of mountains or something from a safe image site.

Fair Use applies when you go to a manufacturer's site and grab their image of a product that you're reviewing, for instance. I have used screenshots of my own computer and software for instructional purposes, that's Fair Use, too. I strongly recommend that you read "Copyright Fair Use and How it Works for Online Images".

Safe and Probably Safe Sources

Before I get to the safe spots, I want to urge caution in a few things. 

Screenshots of videos.

That can be risky. Use caution, since those are copyrighted as well. It may depend on the age of the video and the attitude of the owner. By the way, embedding videos that are posted on YouTube, Vimeo, or elsewhere should not be a problem, especially if you use their code. (I was all a-twitter about embedding a video on a post, then saw that they had embedding disabled. Okay.) There have been times where I embedded videos that have been taken down at the source, so I did not have any repercussions. Well, except for a "video missing" message on the post.

"Good faith".

This is a legal term. When you use an image in good faith, it is because you thought you were not infringing on anyone's rights. Especially if your source claimed that it was available for anyone's use. It is often used in defense, and if there is a mistake somewhere (or something was misrepresented to you) and you are notified of a copyright infringement, by all means, take it down. I suggest that you delete it, tell whoever notifies you that you used the image in good faith, but you've already removed it.

Be careful about using images of people, especially children.
Some sites post free-to-use images, but there is no promise that a freely-uploaded image has a "model release" signed by the person in the photo or their legal representative. Unless you are absolutely certain that the picture is public, steer clear. I've used public images that had people, but still distorted them. Nobody is identifiable in them, and sometimes there's an "artsy" feel to the picture.

Related to this is the use of items of identifiable brands. Suppose my article is "Speeding Toward Disaster". If I used Famous Brand Auto, the manufacturer could take exception, especially since it might be implied that this car is dangerous. I avoid brand names when possible, or use them if they're small. Free image sites have nice pictures of big name products. I crop or blur the names if I have to.

Get familiar with "public domain"-type laws for your country. 
This is not as difficult as it sounds because there are some basic guidelines that you can look up. Or don't take the risk.

The sites themselves.

Some sites are glad to let you have their images, and have guidelines for their use.

Government agencies can be excellent sources.
However, "dot gov" is not a guarantee. In the United States, material from federal agencies is usually public domain. State agencies are not, and you need to check the copyright and use policies.
Also, watch for image credits, as government agencies will obtain copyrighted images from outside sources. For instance, NASA will post images provided by non-governmental employees, and you do not have the right to take those. If it says, for example, "Image credit:", it is public domain. Most government sites want credit, however, and it's helpful to add a disclaimer that they are not endorsing the article or site contents. Besides, it's courteous.

I resize images so people don't have their bandwidth clogged with high-resolution images, and give links back to my sources. It is not often required, but some are trying to get exposure (heh) and a link back can help them out.
There are some people who will try to sue because, although the subject in the picture is old, they took the picture and did their digital manipulations. This is a controversial area (see the information on this William Blake image). So if you resize a 300 dpi image down to a 96 dpi and 100kb file, there's less of a chance for someone fussing about it.


I do not use these, but some organizations pay for images as mentioned above. It can be a real time saver, and they have various plans that may or may not fit your budget. Apparently model releases and other legal issues may be covered for you.

"Meme" generators.
Pictures with captions, many with a common theme. People use them in various ways, however. Yes, I use them, too. With caution. Anyone can upload something, that does not mean it is up for grabs. Some people think that they can confiscate any picture, run it through a meme generator, put an insulting (or even libelous) caption on it, and that makes everything hunky-dory. Worse, someone else comes along, finds the image and makes a new caption — and the image was never legally used in the first place.

What I recommend on these things is to use memes that are established as hosted by the meme sites. You can do a search in a meme database (be ready for extreme profanity, however), or see if there are many on the web already. If it has a name, you can search for it (such as Kyle, "Bad Luck Brian"). If I go to a meme generator and the image is new to me or not one of their main stock images, I'm likely to pass it by.

One thing I like to do with the generators is to leave the credit on there ("made on imgur", "" and so on). Although I run them through my photo editing software and add a "watermark" when I want to stake a claim for my captions, I leave their credit (if they put one on the image) for a couple of reasons.
One is that I think it's only fair. Second, it's a way of showing "good faith", that I believed (along with thousands of other people) that the meme generator was offering something legally in their stock images.

Many memes have blank templates. Those can be useful if the meme generator does not meet your texting needs, and you can make one through your own photo editing software.

I have taken to running free images through meme generators because, although they are limited, the text is not blurry. Unless you have high-end software, you have to save images in PNG or other large files to keep the text sharp. Once in a while is okay. Take a look at what I did with this one

Clip art.

Sometimes a cute or a simple illustration will take care of things. Clip art can be your friend — especially if it is donated to public domain. If you feel like being creative with photo editing, you can have fun with it. Or keep it simple. Clker has been helpful to me, especially when I want low image file sizes.

Public domain image sites.

There are several of these, and some have been disappointing to me. Perhaps it is because of my areas of special interest. However, there are some that can give you interesting items. I like to be different, and will occasionally use very old pictures or even fine art in my posts and articles.
  • Openverse searches Creative Commons pictures, and I've had success using several on Flickr without having to wade through them to find those that are not locked down by copyright.
  • Wikimedia Commons is a mixture of public domain and shared but licensed images. Also, Wikipedia itself has many public domain images in their articles.
  • The Library of Congress has many images, but they won't guarantee any of them, even if they were from 1910.
  • Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr has illustrations ("cultural artifacts") that can be helpful. I have not found anything that was copyrighted.
  • Also on Flickr, the Smithsonian Institution has images to wade through. 
  • New York Public Library has a few that can help.
  • CSIRO, from the Land Down Under, has science images available if you give credit. I've found a few.

Free-for-use image sites. Always read the terms of use.

Remember, there is always a risk for error or misrepresentation. That is why I keep mentioning "good faith". Many of my images are linked back to the source. Not only does linking show "good faith", but may help researchers in the science articles. Also, when using some of these freely available materials, a link back helps the photographer. Many do not require a link back or even credit — but why not be a pal? And if you want to post an illustration on social(ist) media, you can easily include a link to the image. In this case, I edited the credit onto the image at the upper right.

However, when you post a link on Facebook or use a "share" button, an image often comes along for the ride. That's not what I'm talking about.

Some of my main sources include:
  • Pixabay is excellent for photos and digital artwork.
  • freeimages (formerly stock.xchng) has many images. Watch out, though, because they often pop up links to iStock, which is pay-to-use.
  • Unsplash, which I first discovered at Answers in Genesis, promises totally free images donated by photographers. The search function is weak, however.
  • RGBStock has both free and paid content. Credit is required for the free images.
  • Freestocks has a small but growing number of images.
  • PhotoFunia is great. Not only filters for images, but you can simply make your own text images. Take a look at what I did with Charles Darwin's police photo.
  • Pixnio has photos for "anyone and any use".
  • Pexels also has useful content.
  • Free Digital Photos has a weak name, but usable images. I even found something with a person' face and a "model release on file". The site has had problems being down lately.
  • has some images for people like me.
  • morgueFile has helped me quite a bit, but many are lower quality.
Take and make your own.

I don't know that they're really supposed to be called, but when people make an image that is just text and background, I call it a text image. The reason those are so popular may be due to the fact that many social media sites do not allow formatting on text.

I made that one. It's a JPEG, and not a large file (a TIFF of this image is many times larger, and the PNG is somewhat larger than JPEG). You can take some of those free-to-use images and caption them as well.

When you go for a drive in the countryside, a trip to the zoo, the evolution propaganda history museum, hiking, whatever — bring a camera. These days, they are not nearly as expensive, and you can take quite a few, deleting the ones you do not want. Just remember to reduce the file size and resolution before uploading.

Ask people.

Usually, I am hurrying to complete an article or post, so I use the previously mentioned services. But there are times when I can contact someone and ask if I can use an image. To protect their rights, I "watermark" the image like I did here. Some people don't care about that.
Also, you may be able to contact someone on the web: "Hey, I really like your picture of a moose eating corn chips, can I use it in a post? I'll link back to you, of course". The photographer or artist may be glad to use the image in return for the publicity. Or you may be charged a fee, that's up to you and your budget.

The End of the Matter

These principles can apply to weblogs, sites, social media and so forth. Christians are called to a higher standard. Some will arrogantly disregard the rights of others and the law, but those seem to be in the minority (I've seen atheists justify their lawbreaking, we don't want to be like them). Others act in ignorance and on assumptions, freely using anything that catches their fancy.
Think, people! We are ambassadors of Christ, but with intangible things like electronic images, we may be dishonoring him out of ignorance. 

Yes, there will be mistakes and careless slip-ups, and maybe some things will be misrepresented to us (I'm still learning and making adjustments myself). By acting in good faith and taking down genuine requests if we've done wrong or been misled, we can be good examples. Using the safe photo sources will help tremendously, and we will not give our adversaries a valid reason to criticize us in this area (1 Peter 3.16 ESV).