You need a photo quickly to add to your print campaign or include in your digital advertisement so you let your fingers do the walking and turn to your trusty pal Google. But before you’re tempted to snag that fantastic image you found through a Google image search, conjure up the MC Hammer Song, “U Can’t Touch This” and keep yourself out of major hot water. Taking an image you found on the internet might seem harmless, but it could cost you thousands of dollars in fines and even imprisonment if you are found guilty of copyright infringement.


Photo copyright infringement occurs when you use an image that belongs to someone else, whether it includes a copyright symbol or not. Even photos on the internet are implicitly covered by copyright law. There are several myths that could get you in trouble with the law if you aren’t careful.


  1. PHOTOS FOUND ONLINE ARE FAIR GAME – An image found on the internet is subject to the same copyright laws as if you found it in a book, magazine, or snuck into someone’s home and stole their camera. Just because you found a photo online and used it, even without intentionally meaning to violate the law, doesn’t mean you won’t be held accountable.

  2. IF IT DOESN’T HAVE A COPYRIGHT SYMBOL IT’S FINE TO USE – According to the United Sates Copyright Office, the copyright symbol, while it may appear on or in connection with a photo on the internet, is not required to secure a copyright. Copyright is implied and reserved to the originator of a work of art including photography. While the copyright symbol might make it easier to prove ownership in court, it is not required.

  3. IT’S OK TO USE A PHOTO AS LONG AS YOU CITE THE SOURCE – Simply citing the website where you found the photo doesn’t protect you legally or give you license to use a photo that belongs to someone else. Neither does citing the photographer’s name. Not to mention that it can be nearly impossible to track down the original source of a photo on the internet. Without express written consent from the owner of the photo you are not legally absolved of copyright infringement.

  4. ALTERING A PHOTO CHANGES THE COPYRIGHT – Including your brand’s logo on a photo you found online to watermark it does not give you legal right to use it as your own. Cropping or otherwise altering it doesn’t change the status of the copyright either. It still remains the property of the creator and to use it without written consent is unlawful.

  5. ALL FREE STOCK PHOTOS ALLOW FOR COMMERCIAL USE – While there are many great free stock photography sites out there, you need to check the terms of use carefully. While many allow for editorial use (such as in a blog post or press release), many do not extend to commercial use. This means that if you use a photo with editorial rights only to sell a product, you are in violation of the terms of use and may be subject to copyright infringement.

  6. IF YOUR WEB DESIGNER, GRAPHIC DESIGNER, OR COPYWRITER UPLOADED THE PHOTO, YOUR BUSINESS IS NOT LIABLE- Even if you pay a third party to design your advertising content or have an employee who innocently grabs a photo from the internet to use in your print ad, blog post, or digital sign, your company is ultimately responsible for the copyright infringement. Make sure you know where your images are sourced from.


While you might be tempted into thinking that one little photo in the vast sea of internet photos might never be found, consider this: there are copyright lawyers whose whole careers are dedicated to prosecuting copyright infringement cases. With the advent of photo comparison software, some people post photos online for the specific purpose of trolling for lawsuits.

Legal penalties for copyright infringement can be incredibly steep. According to the United States Department of Justice, monetary damages can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars and can be accompanied by jail time.


  1. FREE STOCK PHOTO SITES - There are lots of great free stock photography sites online that offer free photographs under the Creative Commons license. Under a Creative Commons License the person who created the work has granted his/her work to the public domain, waving all of his or her rights under copyright law. As mentioned earlier, just be sure you check the terms of use and make sure you are using them only for the purposes set forth in the terms of the license. Check out these 20 free stock photo sites to get you started!

  2. PAID STOCK PHOTO SITES – There are numerous stock photography sites to choose from. Some are based on a monthly or annual subscription price that allow you to download a set number of photos per month. Other stock photography sites require you to pay per photo. There are standard and enhanced licenses. Just make sure you buy the license that covers exactly what you plan to use it for.

  3. TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS – One of the best ways to avoid all manner of image copyright infringement is to take the photo(s) yourself. If your in-house photographer takes the photos under your employment, your company retains the copyright. However, if you contract out for your photography, be sure to get it in writing that you hold the copyright or have the photographer grant you a license to use the photo for editorial and/or commercial use.

So while Google can be your best friend, it’s best not save any photos you find on the internet. It’s just not worth risking photo copyright infringement. Take stock in your company’s future by opting for free or paid stock photos or take your own.