image licensing for bloggers

A Guide to Image Licensing for Bloggers

When I first sat down to start a blog, I knew that I wanted those big, pretty images I saw on other people’s websites, but I had no clue how to get them. I knew I had to pay – in money or attribution – to use images that weren’t mine, but I didn’t know how to properly go about it. The licenses just looked like a mess.

Yes, there are licenses. Contrary to popular belief, not everything on the Internet is up for grabs. Copyrights are challenged and infringed upon almost every day, but only the true bigwigs can afford to fight people who use their work unfairly.

Using others’ photography isn’t an all-or-nothing game. The line between free and paid images is thick and full of potholes. It took a while, but I finally got the hang of the system. Bloggers, here’s your handy guide to image licensing.

What Is Stock Photography?

Stock photos are images anyone can use, provided they pay or provide attribution. Some stock photography websites require you to subscribe or pay per image to use their resources. If you aren’t prepared to pay for images to use on your blog, never fear! There are plenty of free stock photos available online.

Before you rush off to find these free beauties, keep in mind: just because an image is a “free” stock photo doesn’t mean you can slap it on your website with impunity. The pictures you use have creators who may or may not want you to give them credit for their work when you use it. This is called attribution. How and when you must attribute a photograph to its creator will vary according to the photo license under which it was released.

Understanding Photo Licenses

This is not a comprehensive list of all photo licenses. There are many different types of licenses for creative work, but I’m only focusing on the ones you’ll run into when searching for images to use on your blog. If you encounter a license you do not understand, please feel free to leave a comment asking about it.

Royalty-Free vs. Rights-MANAGED

“Royalty-free” can sound an awful lot like “free” to newbie bloggers, who are then left disappointed and dumbfounded when the website asks them to pay for royalty-free images. Licensors use the term to distinguish royalty-free images from rights-managed content.

So what’s the difference?

Well, when you pay for a royalty-free image, you’re paying for almost unlimited use of that image. So long as you abide by the license terms, the image is yours to use as you like. Rights-managed images, on the other hand, have more restrictions, and may require you to pay the artist a percentage of revenue generated by your use of her work.

Personal Use vs. Commercial Use

Both personal use and commercial use images can be obtained for free, but you may find yourself at the center of a lawsuit if you use a free image that is licensed for personal use only for a money-making purpose. If your blog is monetized, or if you wish it to be so in the future, make sure to use only images licensed for personal use.

Model Release

If your favorite stock photos have people in them – as opposed to flowers, animals, or landscapes – be careful using them in marketing materials for your blog. Most free stock photo websites do not guarantee a model release, and this could spell big trouble for you.

Let’s say you’ve found the perfect image of a smiling woman for your pro-choice blog. Because it’s licensed under CC0 – more on that in a minute – you don’t hesitate to print out brochures using this picture. Then you get a complaint from the model in the picture. She’s seen your literature, she doesn’t believe in abortion, and she’s pretty upset.

Obviously, the kind – and smart – thing to do would be to recall as many of the brochures as you can and print a formal apology. But, even if you do these things, you might still find yourself on the receiving end of an expensive lawsuit. The scary part: this could all happen even if you use a photo that claims to have a model release.


Because stock photography websites do not often get visual confirmation that the photographer has a model release; they take her word for it. Now, an angry model is far more likely to go after the photographer who misrepresented her than you, but, to play it safe, you may want to reach out to the image’s creator and ask for visual confirmation of the model release.

Fair Use

Fair use is an exception to copyright law that allows copyrighted material to be used by certain entities without permission from the rights holder. This is the law that allows for product parodies and criticism. However, it also protects journalists and search engines, and allows for certain images to be used in scholarship.

As a blogger, you will most likely not be protected by fair use should you be sued for copyright infringement. If you think your case is an exception, I encourage you to seek help from an attorney specializing in copyright law, which I am not.

All Rights Reserved

If an image is labeled “all rights reserved,” you cannot use it without contacting the owner of the photograph directly – usually via email – and getting her permission. Attribution means nothing without the consent of the photographer, and asking is not a cursory thing nice people do; it’s the lawful and intelligent course of action. Photographers sue bloggers for infringement, and you don’t want to be the defendant in an easily-avoided lawsuit.

Public Domain

Public domain images may be used and modified, even for commercial purposes, at no cost to you. Creative items – including books, music, and images – may enter the public domain through a variety of ways. Anything published in the US before 1923 is in the public domain, as are all government photographs. For all other materials, the general rule states that the copyright should last for 70 years following the death of the author, or – in the case of works without a specific creator – 95 years after publication or 120 years after original creation, whichever comes first.

Many artists and writers have donated their work to libraries or academic institutions, and it is not uncommon for these holders to give up their copyrights and allow materials to enter the public domain. Additionally, some artists may voluntarily release their work into the public domain. Images and other works dedicated to the public domain are under a Creative Commons 0 (CC0) license.

Giving attribution to CC0 images on your blog is an ethical concern. If you’re using historical images, such at those donated by government and academic bodies, it’s often advisable to attribute them properly. Citing your sources gives your work credibility and allows interested parties to explore similar photographs.

Creative Commons Licenses

Aside from the CC0 license, there are six Creative Commons licenses. All of them require attribution, and each one has different restrictions on how you’re allowed to use it. Here’s a primer.


In terms of image licensing for bloggers, the CC BY is practically the holy grail. Yes, you do have to credit the photographer properly, but that’s it. You’re free to modify and distribute these images, even for commercial purposes.


The ShareAlike license is also pretty lenient. However, unlike other Creative Commons licenses, anything created from an SA license must be distributed with an SA license.

So, let’s say you find a picture of Lou Ferrigno that has been shared under the CC BY-SA license, and you turn Mr. Ferrigno green in Photoshop. Well, if you want to share your version of the image, you have to do so under a CC BY-SA license.


The NoDerivatives license is the opposite of SA. Photographers who distribute their work with a CC BY-ND license don’t want you playing around with their images, but they don’t mind if you use them for commercial purposes.


The NonCommercial license is exactly what it sounds like. You can make all the derivatives you want from these images, but don’t sell them, or use them for commercial purposes.


Aww, man, what can you possibly do with this? You can’t make money off of a CC BY-NC-ND image, and you can’t modify it, either. But you can share these images – with attribution, of course – with your readers.


Want to just be creative without making any money? Maybe work on a collaborative project? If so, the CC BY-NC-SA license is definitely for you.

As of this writing, the Creative Commons licenses were in their fourth generation, meaning each license is followed by 4.0. Since the 4.0 license has only been around since 2013, you may wish to check to make sure your use of CC materials does not violate older versions of the license. For more information on CC licenses, visit the Creative Commons online.

How to Give Proper Credit on Blog Images

It used to be – and probably still is – fairly common to see messages like the following on blogs of all sizes:

I claim no rights to any of the images found here unless otherwise noted. Images belong to their respective owners. Photographers may email requests to remove their images to emailATproviderDOTcom.

As we’ve already seen, messages like these have no legal meaning, despite their prevalence. And although some artists might be comfortable emailing a blogger and having their images removed, others may seek compensation – and rightfully so – from monetized blogs using their materials.

It’s up to you to make sure you are doing your part to avoid creative theft. Slapping a message like “all images copyright their respective owners” on your page just won’t cut it. And, since ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it, you’ll be left to deal with the repercussions of your actions if you use an image improperly, even without malicious intent.

So, now you know that you absolutely must attribute works to their owners when credit is due, but how do you put the information out there? What do you have to say in order for your attribution to be legally sound?

As it turns out, not much. The most important rule of attribution is to pay attention to what the creator wants. If the creator wants you to use her full name, or link to her portfolio page, you’d best do that, or else risk copyright infringement charges, which – by the way – can ruin both your career and your reputation.

Since most image licenses you’ll encounter as a blogger are CC, let me be the first to tell you that you’re in luck! CC 4.0 is much more lenient than its predecessors, because “the manner of attribution is explicitly allowed to be reasonable to the means, medium, and context of how one shares a work.” You can click here for a full guide to Creative Commons licensing methods.

Generally, an author’s name, a link to the image on a photography website – such as Flickr or Pixabay – and the name of your source are enough to satisfy attribution requirements for images used on blogs. If you’re unsure, however, contact the photographer and ask if your citation is up to snuff. They’ll be happy to hear from you.


Image: Thomas Leuthard/IM Creator