5 ways to find images for your website

Yellow and black squirrel monkey at London Zoo

Finding good images online to use on your website or blog is fairly easy but finding images that are licensed for reuse can be hard. 

It’s often difficult to know when it’s ok to reuse an image that has been published online and when it’s not. The internet may be a global network but each country has different copyright laws and there are no simple best practice rules applicable to everyone.

In this blog I’ll look at a best practice example of online image attribution, some of the problems that face anyone trying to work out if they can reuse an image online and five ways to find great images licensed for reuse, including:

  1. The Creative Commons search tool
  2. Museums, libraries and archives
  3. Getty Images
  4. Gratisography 
  5. Taking your own photo!

Online image attribution: an example of best practice

Copyright is usually owned by individuals or organisations. I, for instance, own the copyright to the above image of a yellow and black squirrel monkey. (This is no small achievement given recent, high-profile interspecies copyright disputes*). 

You can republish the above image on your website or blog so long as you provide appropriate credit because I’ve released it under a Creative Commons license.   

What does “appropriate credit” mean? There are no obvious guidelines on the license itself but, if you dig a little deeper, there is a suggested best practice example. The credit should be something like this: 

"Yellow and black squirrel monkey at London Zoo" by edwebdev is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What are the problems with reusing images online?

This is just one example, though, and it’s often not this straight forward. There are billions of images available online and you can usually copy and reuse them digitally in a matter of seconds. However, working out if you are legally entitled to reuse an image and, if so, how you should provide attribution to the owner can take an awful lot longer. 

There are many reasons this is so complicated, including 3 important facts:

1. There are different copyright laws in different countries

There are also different interpretations of international law.

The server where the image is stored may be located in a country with a very different set of copyright laws to the location of the device on which you republish it.

2. There is no universal best practice for attribution or licensing

There is no clear best practice for when you are allowed to reuse an image or how you should provide attribution if you do.

Creative Commons is one good licensing model but is only applicable to a relatively miniscule percentage of the images available online. Using images in the public domain or under “Fair Dealing” if the use fits one of the fair dealing categories and the creator is acknowledged are other options as licences aren’t required. However, the “Monkey Selfie” debate I alluded to earlier shows how complicated this can sometimes be; these concepts can be interpreted differently, especially in different countries. 

There are groups of people doing some very interesting work to create tools to automatically generate image license information based on an image URL. A good example of this is Lizenzverweisgenerator, though, as the same suggests, this tool will only help you stay out of jail in Germany and works for Wikimedia Commons images only. 

3. You have to rely on the publisher to provide the image license information

Another major issue is that you have to rely on the publisher of the image to provide the relevant licensing information on the source web page.

Some websites, like Flickr, provide this in a very simple, consistent way but most do not. The information may be lurking in “Terms and conditions” text but almost nobody will ever, ever read this.

Very often you will come across image files, embedded on websites or search engine results, that contain no contextual information about the author or terms of use. So it is almost impossible to know if you can use the image – best to assume that you can’t!

Ideally this information would be stored in the image file as metadata as well as more visibly as text on a web page. However, often this information is accidentally lost or is deliberately stripped when an image is shared or copied, through no fault of the author. 

There is some very interesting work being done by Commons Machinery, again linked to Wikimedia Commons images, to ensure that information such as the creator, terms of use and date of creation is maintained even when images are shared.  This means that it would become easier to find the terms under which you can reuse the image and could even allow for automatic attribution and notification of use.

Can’t I just ignore it and hope it goes away?

Lots of people do. But creators should be acknowledged and rewarded for their work and copyright infringement can have very serious consequences. You can go to jail or be fined a large sum of money. For instance, 

So, the best thing to do is to use images that are clearly licensed for reuse. I’ve highlighted 5 ways of getting hold of these kinds of images below.

1. Creative commons search tool

One of the best tools, unsurprisingly, is the Creative Commons Search tool. This allows you to search for images, music and video that is published under a Creative Commons license. There is also a useful filter for finding content specifically licensed for commercial purposes or to adapt or build on.

It’s very simple to use and allows you to search a variety of websites including Flickr, Wikipedia Commons and the Europeana project.

2. Museums, libraries and archives

The Europeana project contains lots of fantastic digitised images from a range of Europe’s leading galleries, libraries, archives and museums. However, if you’re looking for a specific type of image, perhaps a painting of Gibraltar or a photo of some Turkish sand shoes, then there are lots of library, archive and museum websites to choose from, including:

There are too many websites to list here but a simple Google search for “[name of library, museum, gallery or archive] creative commons” will usually quickly reveal if that particular institution has images available for reuse.

3. Getty images

Getty Images has made over 50 million images available to use legally and for free on your website.

There are a stunning range of images available. However, these images are not released under Creative Commons licenses. Instead, Getty provides an embed code for each image that can be pasted into your website.

As well as the image, some attribution text and a link is also embedded on your website. In this sense Getty is encouraging proper attribution but also maintaining some degree of control over their images.

There are some downsides to this approach, though. There have been some suggestions that Getty may start running advertisments (on your site) via this embed code and, like with any third party script, there are some privacy concerns too. It also means you are dependant on Getty's servers, if they go down then your website loses all those lovely Getty images too!

4. Gratisography

Gratisography is a relatively new project that has fewer images than some of the other examples listed. However, it does provide beautiful, high-resolution images that are available to download completely free of copyright restrictions even for commercial use, essentially they are published under a Creative Commons CC0 license.

5. Take your own photo!

In some ways the simplest way to get around the difficulties of finding images to reuse online is to take your own photos. But remember that your employer will own the copyright for any photograph taken during the course of your employment and if you take a photo that has, as its main subject, a work protected by copyright (such as a painting in a gallery), you first need to ask permission from the copyright owner!

You still need to be aware of the laws governing photography.… but that’s a subject for a different blog post. There is a guide you can use to start researching these issues on Digital Camera World.

What about video?

The Creative Commons search tool allows you to search YouTube for Creative Commons video and there are some interesting Creative Commons video websites, like Mazwai, being created, but, again, this is a blog post for another day!


*Apparently, contrary to many reports, Wikimedia never claimed that the monkey owned the copyright, just that nobody owned it; the (human) owner of the camera didn’t create the photo so, therefore, cannot claim copyright. 

After discussing copyright at some length, I feel I should add that I am not a legal adviser and the above is based on my practical experience of trying to find images to reuse on various websites and blogs. With that in mind, here's a fun disclaimer:

The content of this blog does not constitute legal advice. Neither the author nor CILIP represents itself as a legal adviser and neither can accept responsibility for any loss or damage incurred as a result of acting upon information contained herein.


Image source: "Yellow and black squirrel monkey at London Zoo" by edwebdev is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 / Original cropped and resized


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