“Free” Image Services May Have Copyrighted Content

Photos hosted on the websites of many small businesses may be illegal — even if acquired from popular image sites including Unsplash, Pixabay, or Pexels.

That’s according to Legal Images, a new project working for better copyright protection and clearer photo licensing online. According to a June 30 press release, Legal Images reported that 85% of images posted online are either stolen or lack proper copyright clearance.

“Even though there is also a legal part of the photo industry — with major players such as Shutterstock and Getty Images — the gray-zone is simply too massive, and something needs to happen,” James Peterson from Legal Images said in the press release.

According to a 2019 report from Copytrack, the U.S. commits 22.96% of all image infringements, larger than any other country. And while many of these infringements are deliberate theft, others are accidental.

Small- or medium-sized businesses that don’t have the resources to take photos themselves turn to image sites for help with their websites, where legality can be murky.

So how can you tell if the images on your website are legal?

Paying for them is a good start. The already-mentioned subscription services — Shutterstock and Getty Images — along with places like Adobe Stock and DepositPhotos, offer legal protections. 

Each of these paid sites — and others like them — do have a licensing agreement, however, with limitations about the manner in which photos can be used. Shutterstock, for example, forbids using images from their site in a libelous manner. 

But generally speaking, you’re safe using subscription services like these to source images for your company’s website.  

Free image sites aren’t worth the risk

That’s not the case with free services. In July 2019 a photographer got into legal trouble after using a photo from free stock photo site Unsplash on his blog. 

Free sites use broad copyright licenses that do not include the rights to use images under a variety of provisions — for example, those that include recognizable people, artwork, or logos. 

There are also organizations like Creative Commons through which amateur photographers can offer their photos for free. But these also contain licensing agreements which may preclude commercial use.

Those found guilty of violating copyright — even if accidentally — can be on the hook for up to $150,000

If you have the resources to do so, creating your own images or taking your own photos will give you the greatest leeway, legality-wise, for use on your site.

If you aren’t able to make your own images, be sure to read the licensing agreements for the images you find online, whether they’re free or not. And always stay informed of licensing requirements.