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Lots of people complain about “Millennials” and their craving for instant results, microwave-style gratification, and having everything available 24-7 at their fingertips not only instantly, but for free. But the fact is, that’s more of an excuse to put the blame on a generation than it is to face the truth that most of us feel the same way these days.

Nowhere is that more true than on the Internet. You can download movies, TV shows, music, books and more, instantly. And we get a little irritated when we want something we can’t get or find for free. We don’t even think of the actual costs or how it might be, to be perfectly honest, illegal, to take someone’s hard earned art and not compensate them for it.

Intellectual Property, or “IP” is a buzz word in Hollywood, with every film studio looking for the next Marvel or DC or Harry Potter or Gillian Flynn or Neil Gaiman-penned novel or comic book to repurpose from literary origins to one or more movies. But there’s something else we don’t always think of as IP, and we should.

What’s Wrong With Just Using this Image?

So, you’re hard at work, writing content for your blog and you’ve read, maybe even right here on our site, that you should always use images in your posts to make them stand out. So you hop online and do a quick Google search for… Fall Leaves. Or Kim Kardashian. Or the Royal Wedding.

Hundreds of images come up. More (and some even weird  if you don’t have the adult filter on) images than you can imagine!. So many to pick and choose from, so you scroll down until you find the perfect image. And you download it and put it in your blog. Easy peasy, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a reason companies like Getty and StockFresh and Deposit Photos and Shutter Stock, among many others, watermark their photos. But here’s the thing – even if the photos aren’t watermarked, that doesn’t mean they are free to use.

Just because it’s available on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free.

Just like writing a novel or a screenplay or a short story, once you have created something, at least in the United States, you own the copyright to it. While it’s recommended for authors that they register their work to confirm the legal dates of creation, as soon as something is created, it is copyrighted. For the creator’s sole use, unless they choose to sell or license it, or they created it as part of a job they were employed to do.

There are a lot of complicated factors that may come into play, but the important thing you need to remember, especially as a business owner, is this: the legal protection of a copyright is automatically assigned to content creators at the moment of creation. That means if the creator has not given you express permission, by using someone’s image on your website you are breaking the law.

And if you’re outside the US or grabbing content from outside it, be aware many other countries are even stricter about these rules.

But I See Everyone Doing It!

As your mother used to say, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge then would you do it too?” The implication being that peer pressure, or justifying our actions because someone else got away with it, isn’t really the best defense.

It is true you’re not alone. Even big news agencies like CNN and BBC make the mistake of not attributing, or thinking they don’t have to. But you’ll find that in the fine print of Google Images, Twitter and Facebook user agreements the caveat that the posters of images are the owners of those images – even though the sites themselves sometimes appear to have a problem ‘accidentally’ using their users’ photos without making sure they had the correct permission.

Basically, just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right. And you don’t have the legal teams to fight it if a creator sues you for using their images without permission, even if that was a proper defense.

So Where Can I Get Images I Can Legally Use?

There are a couple of options out there.

Creative Commons

In their own words, “Creative Commons helps you legally share your knowledge and creativity to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world.” Inspired by Open Source software, Creative Commons (CC) provides easy-to-use copyright licenses – for free – standardizing an approach to giving the public permission to access and share the work of creators – limited by conditions that the creators set.

Creative Commons isn’t limited to photos, but to any media shared online. And a majority of creators offer what’s called an Attribution License, which simply means that you can use the image, as long as you credit the creator in the caption, and provide a link back to their website. The creators can also set a limited time, size, and commercial or non-commercial use for their work.

The best part is you don’t have to go to a special site to locate these images. While you can search on the Creative Commons site, in 2009, Google implemented a new setting on their image results page to filter for CC. Other search engines and Flickr quickly followed suit. Since Google is, by far, the most used search engine, I’m just going to cover their process.

At the top of the search results, right under the magnifying glass, you’ll see a tab titled Tools. When you click that, a new series of tabs pops up underneath. Click on Usage Rights and select the appropriate filtering. For most small businesses, I’d recommend going with one of the ‘with modification’ settings, but if you don’t change or manipulate the image, it’s okay to just go with labelled for reuse – and unless you’re a registered non-profit, you can skip noncommercial.

Royalty Free Use

There are several sites that offer varying levels of selection and quality to Internet users who need images for websites or blogs and don’t have the money to pay for them. A lot of times, photographers starting out will post their images on one of these sites to build awareness and then transition into a licensed use situation. Some creators just like sharing their gifts and seeing their work out in the world.

Either way, the images are cataloged and distributed through Royalty Free sites. Some of the tops ones I’ve used are Pixabay, Negative Space, Pexels, and Startup Stock Photos.

Each of those sites has a variety of images and a lot of them will show you similar images, although they use different algorithms to determine “similar”, which can lead to some interesting results. There are plenty of other sites, but do your due diligence to make sure that you have legal access to use what you’re downloading  for the purposes you need it – some restrict commercial use, and some won’t let you repost on Twitter or Facebook, so just be aware.

Licensed Use

You probably already know several of the companies that offer licensed use photos – I mentioned several of them at the beginning of this article. These companies and sites offer thousands of diverse photos that you can download, either unlimited for a monthly fee, or single or bundled images for single uses for a one-time fee.

Many of these sites also allow you to download the watermarked images to see how they look on your site or ebook before you pay for them. But obviously, you wouldn’t leave a watermarked image in something you’re marketing to your customers, even a free lead magnet.

Here at Grow the Dream, we’ve had great success with Big Stock Photo. We can find just about any image we need, in various sizes from small to the actual Adobe Illustrator vector graphics for really big jobs. Every photo is clean, sharp, professional and suitable for business use.

Unlimited, But Legal

As you can see, there are many options for low cost or even free images you can use without violating another person’s creative copyright. You can even use programs like GIMP, QuickMeme, or the smart phone and tablet app Over to create unique, sharable content for your blog or social media efforts.

Visuals are a necessary part of any marketing effort, especially online marketing, and their importance doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. In fact, we’ll be talking more about excelling in your visual storytelling and marketing efforts in a later post. Until then, commit to only using legally acquired images and save yourself a lot of hassle down the road.