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How to Find Royalty Free Legal Images to Use in Your Content

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You don’t have to be a professional photographer or a graphic artist to include rich, high quality images on your website or blog. There are hundreds of sources on the Internet for the kind of graphic images that add value and interest to your content, and they’re readily available, royalty free.

articleimage160Royalty Free Images


Before you look for images for your site, it helps to know what you’re looking for. Many websites that offer royalty free images provide a variety of image types, others specialize in photos, animations or vectors. While you may be familiar with these types of images, the legal and use implications may be unfamiliar to you.

Most websites carry stock images. These are photos and graphics that are widely available for use by anyone who needs them. They can be generic or very specific; using narrow search definitions will help you zoom in on exactly what you’re looking for and avoid using images that are already familiar to users.

Stock images fall into to two main categories: royalty free and managed use.

articleimage160TYPES OF IMAGES

Royalty Free Images

Royalty free doesn’t mean these images are available free of charge. The term means that these visuals are freely available for use on the Internet by anyone who pays the initial licensing fee. Once the nominal fee is paid, you’re allowed unlimited use of the images for any duration and any number of projects or applications. Royalty free images are subject to the Terms of Use from the website you purchase the rights from, so read the fine print carefully to learn about any restrictions that apply.

Managed Use Images

This type of image is also known as a rights-managed image. Usually these images are very specialized and there is one artist, photographer or group of artists that creates or supplies them. The purchaser gains the rights to use such images for a limited time. Additional restrictions may also be placed on the manner of use, location and number of applications. Again, read the fine print, TOS and FAQs of the website before you commit to anything.


Copyright laws cover any creative work, from the moment of its creation. All music, visual art, written works and their creators are protected under the laws by copyright laws in the 160 participating nations and by the U.S. Copyright Act. This applies to any video, photo or image you find on the Internet from any source. Violation of copyright, also known as infringement, doesn’t need to be intentional to be a crime.

Avoiding Infringement

There are two ways you can be considered in violation of a copyright: you can either violate the rights of the creator of an image or the legal holder of the rights to an image.

Specifically, you’re in violation of a legal copyright if you:

  • Use part or all of an image or other work without permission
  • Use an image beyond the scope of what’s specified in the Terms of Use
  • Use an image beyond what’s stipulated in your licensing agreement
  • Adapt an image in another medium without the permission of the creator or legal copyright holder
  • Ask another artist or photographer to recreate an identical image

You don’t have to be directly involved in the infringement to be considered guilty. You can also be considered in violation if you have knowledge of the violation, encourage someone else to violate a copyright on your behalf, or if you knowingly or unknowingly use an image from another source that didn’t have a legal right to publish or use the image in question.

That’s why it important to know the source of your images and deal with a reputable website when acquiring photos or other graphics for use on your web page or blog. A reputable source will include legal protection, either free or for a small fee. This protection might also be called indemnification or a legal guarantee in the licensing agreement.

When searching for images, find out from the supplier if they:

  • Have permission to license the image
  • Have on file model or property releases for their images
  • Offer additional legal protection in the case of disputed images
  • Have a protocol in place to identify risky images, such as trademarked items, before offering them for use


There are several sources for high quality images that you can use. The two most common are stock photos and creative commons-licensed content.

Stock Photos

There are hundreds of websites where you can find stock photos. The only drawback for this option is that some of the images that are available for free aren’t print quality. Many of these are also in wide distribution. However, most are fine for basic website use. Just perform a general search for free clip art or stock photos to find a list of websites that archive and distribute stock photos. Some of the websites that supply stock photos require a small membership fee, then allow a certain number of images to be used royalty free for the duration of the membership. Each websites is different, so browse around for the best.

Once you’ve found a source for images, use very specific terms in the site’s search box or browse the categories to weed out images that have already saturated the web. The sites that carry them typically already have them licensed for general use. Otherwise, the creator of the image simply needs to be notified about how and where the image will be placed. On rare occasions they’re available only for non-commercial use.

articleimage160Creative Commons Content

Creative Commons Content

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that provides a way around paying outright for copyrights and licensing. It’s the least expensive and most common source for high quality photos and graphics. You can either use websites such as Flickr, which contain a high volume of CC-licensed images, or you can filter a search to specify “CC-licensed only” images.

There are different use requirements for Creative Commons content, but usually they’re limited to providing credit or a link back for the source. Clicking on the image itself will lead to information about any limitations or conditions for use.

Other Options

Another source of royalty free images is to find those that are considered to be in the public domain. Public domain means that the photos or images have passed the end date of the original term of the copyright, and the rights haven’t been reissued.

Most of these type of websites are government or education sites, like NASA’s website. You’ll know them by the suffix .gov or .edu; unless otherwise stated on the photo, the images on these sites are for public use. There will be a copyright notice on or below the photo, but always click on the image to check if permission is required for its use.

Getty Images now allows use of up to 35 million of their images, as long as they are for non-commercial purposes on a blog or personal website. This site consists mainly of news images that are high quality and are not normally available from other sources without payment.

A strong image creates a visual impact that generates interest and draws readers in. However, the image you choose should be relevant to your content and add value, rather than detract from your message or intent. Powerful visuals and strong content go hand in hand to help create a user experience that sets your website or blog ahead of the rest of the pack.

Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.

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George Nielsen

George Nielsen has been in the internet marketing game since 2008 and is passionate about helping businesses use SEO and inbound marketing to generate leads online. He has a B.S. in Marketing Management, loves fishing, and is a big football fan.

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1 Comment

  1. avatar

    Vandy Massey's Art

    Great article. I’m a watercolour artist and I have recently made all the images of my paintings available for use by bloggers under a creative commons licence. Do you know if there’s any listing site I can add my website to in order to let more people know about my images?

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