When you are blogging online, a picture can bring the topic home and connect with readers intellectually or emotionally, not to mention improving your social media reach. But you can’t use just any picture you found online. Find out why it is important to use stock imagery and give attribution if you want to use a photo online.

An editorial client of mine once sent me a draft blog post beautifully punctuated with photos of a specific form of Asian pottery. The bowls connected to her post and the illustrated the idea of her post perfectly. After scanning through the post, I sent her a question:

“Great pictures! Where did you find them?”

Turns out, the artwork was the result of a Google search. She had simply saved the pictures to her computer and added them to her blog post. She couldn’t even say where they were found online.


Why Ownership & Attribution Matter

Where photos were found online is very important – especially for law bloggers. If you aren’t careful about where your photos come from and whether they are licensed for public use, you could find yourself facing a Cease and Desist letter for copyright infringement. Some of the larger online photo mills developed a reputation a few years back for sending unsuspecting bloggers angry letters that threatened thousands of dollars in damages and other cringe-worthy consequences if they didn’t immediately pay for the use of the sites’ photos.

Here’s a crash course on what you need to know about photo licensing:


As a general rule, any photo or image created by anyone belongs to that person. He or she has a copyright on the material until it runs out (that takes decades) or they take some action to waive their interest in the picture.¬†Putting something up online does not waive a person’s copyright to the image. Unless the artist says otherwise or it falls into a variety of exceptions, copying, saving, downloading, or using another person’s artwork is illegal theft of intellectual property.

Public Domain

These are photos that are either so old, or so ubiquitous that they cannot be copyrighted – Like the Mona Lisa or a straight-on shot of the American flag. True public domain images are hard to find. And there are some fuzzy areas around the edges – like what is fair use of an image that is itself part of the story. (Remember that blue and black dress that everyone claimed was white and gold?) Public Domain images can be good for your blog, if they are relevant. But finding something that will grab your reader’s attention and still falls in the category isn’t always easy.

The concept of public domain also raises issues about whether blogs are necessarily journalism. News outlets often can use images of public figures and newsworthy events that would otherwise raise copyright concerns, as long as they meet certain criteria. However, if you are using a blog to drive business to your for-profit law firm, it is safe to assume you are not going to be wielding a press badge any time soon. So don’t bother pushing the envelope on public issue imagery.

Creative Commons 0 (CC0)

These are photos that, for a variety of reasons, the artist has chosen to release to the public. Just to make life confusing, these photos are also sometimes called Public Domain, but they are legally distinct because it is the artist’s choice to release them, rather than a function of the law.

Creative Commons 0 photos may be freely used, edited, and shared, even commercially, without any indication of who the artist is or where the photo comes from. They are the gold standard for your blog. And they aren’t as hard to find as you might think. Just be sure you find the CC0 label before you click publish.

Limited Creative Commons Licenses (CC1, CC2, etc.)

Granting use of your photography or artwork isn’t automatically an all-or-nothing thing. Artists may choose to license their artwork to websites or blogs, or sell the images outright to be used over and over again. Or they may choose to make an image publicly available for certain uses, or with certain limitations. A limited Creative Commons license says that the general public may use the image, but the artist has a few stipulations:

  • Non-commercial use only (this often happens when images include logos or trademarks)
  • Share-Alike requirements (where you are required to upload whatever edited version of the image you use so others can use it to)
  • Attribution requirements (where you are required to indicate who created the image and where it came from)

Before you use an image with a limited CC license (often shortened CC1 or CC2 ), be certain you know the attribution requirements and build them into your blog.

Google Image Searches Are a Start, If You Do It Right

To find out if my editorial client’s pictures were usable, I did the same thing she did: I Googled them. But once I knew where the images came from, I made one crucial adjustment to my search: I restricted the usage rights. Here’s what you do:

Perform your Google Image search as normal by typing the topic into the search bar and clicking search, then tabbing over to the images page. On the upper tool bar (beneath the search bar) there is an option: Settings. Click that. When the drop-down appears, click “Advanced Search.” You’ll be taken to a new window. Scroll down to where it says “usage rights” and select “free to use, share, or modify, even commercially”. Then click “Advanced Search” at the bottom.

Google Advance Image Search Usage Rights

Other search engines likely have similar usage right options, though they may be called something different.

Even after you have done a search based on useage rights make sure you still click through to the image on the website and check for attribution requirements. Some pages, like WikiMedia Commons show up as “free to use” even though their artists require attribution on some images.

Protect Yourself By Using Stock Image Sites with No Attribution Requirements

If you are nervous, paranoid, or in any way unsure if you should use a particular image, the safe bet is to turn to stock image sites that automatically have no attribution requirements. Some of the images on these sites are still limited to non-commercial use because of their connections to existing companies, but the sites are getting better at making that obvious before you fall in love with the picture.

There are both paid and free stock image sites. To a degree, you get what you pay for. Many of the free sites have lower quality imagery, or a narrower selection. Some, like Pixabay.com are designed to lead you to the paid version of their site when you get frustrated that you can’t find what you are looking for. Paid sites, like istockphotos.com or shutterstock.com all have subscription models, or pay per image options. Depending on your marketing budget, it may make sense to use paid stock imagery just for certain content, or with every blog post. But that is a decision for you and your controller.

(This website does not use affiliate links. The websites referenced here are by way of example only. I get no benefit if you use them.)

Incorporating imagery into your blog posts is great – essential, really, if you want the post to do well on social media. But you can’t just use that cool picture you found online. As a law blogger, you need to be smart about copyright and attribution requirements, to make sure your post stays on the right side of the law.

Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist, in Ferndale, Michigan. She provides blogs and web content for lawyers and small businesses. If you need help creating high-quality content for your web marketing, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.