The Definitive Guide to (Mostly) Free Images

John Tabita

They say nothing on the Internet is truly “free.” Even services like Gmail and Facebook come with a price—namely, your privacy (free with a string attached would be more accurate). It’s the same with “free” images from sites like Flickr and and Stock.XCHNG. Here’s what you need to know about free and mostly free images on the web.

Creative Commons: A Non-Traditional Copyright Model

Creative Commons is a creative (pun intended) twist on the traditional copyright model I wrote about last week. “Some Rights Reserved” rather than “All Rights Reserved” is how Creative Commons licensing works.

Creative Commons licenses come in six flavors:

  1. Attribution
  2. Attribution-NonCommercial
  3. Attribution-NoDerivs
  4. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs
  5. Attribution-ShareAlike
  6. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike

Attribution simply means you must credit the photographer in the manner he or she specifies. As you can see, all six Creative Commons require attribution. This is the “price” you pay in exchange for not having to shell out cold, hard cash to use the image. From there, the license restrictions differ in whether or not you can use it for commercial purposes or alter it in any way (i.e., create a derivative).

NonCommercial means you cannot use the image for commercial purposes. And while a charity or non-profit might seem to fit this category, bear in might that, if the organization is attempting to coax money out of its audience (as in the case of charity fund-raising), it may not qualify as “non-commercial.”

NoDerivs is short for No Derivatives, meaning you cannot alter the image in any way—including cropping.

ShareAlike means you can make a derivative of the image, so long as you license the new creation under the same Creative Commons license. So if the original image you altered was licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike, you’d have to do the same with your version.

As you can see, each license is a combination of two or more of these terms. So Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs means the image must be attributed and cannot be used for commercial purposes or altered in any way. Make sense?

Which is Best: Creative Commons or Royalty Free/Right Managed?

Whether to use a Creative Commons image or not depends on context. The biggest drawback to using them on a business or professional website is the attribution requirement. Using free images on pages intended to sell a product or service sends the wrong message. It tells me you want my money, but you’re too cheap to spend yours for some real marketing.

Blog articles are the exception. Even when on a business website, blog articles offer free information or advice. Oftentimes, bloggers are writing to establish themselves as professionals in their industry. So there’s a naturally symbiotic relationship between those authors and the photographers who are trying to do the same by offering their images in return for an attribution. Even sites like Techcrunch and Mashable use Flickr and other Creative Commons images in their articles.

Another disadvantage to free images is photographic quality. While you’ll certainly find a few gems, you’ll spend a lot of time scrolling past mediocre or downright awful images to find a good one. Clearly, there’s a difference between amateur and professional photography—which is why established professionals rarely offer their images for free. As one person put it, people steal stock photography images because they’re good.

Public Domain Images

Works in the public domain are those where intellectual property rights have expired or are ineligible for copyright protection. In plain English, that means they are completely free to use, no strings attached.

Images in the public domain have their use for blogging, or for historical or editorial content, but I wouldn’t necessarily use one on a business website, unless it happened to fit the topic.

As I stated in last week’s article, using random images from a Google search puts both you and your client at risk. Stock image companies won’t be satisfied with a “cease and desist”. Even if you remove the image immediately (which you should), they also insist on punitive damages over and above the original licensing fee. While the blogosphere’s full of questionable advice on how to handle an infringement claim, it’s best to avoid the situation in the first place. The best protection against copyright infringement is to assume everything is copyrighted unless stated otherwise.

So the next time you’re tempted to right-click and “Save Image As…” keep in mind that the better the image looks, the more likely it is to be a copyrighted stock photo.

Image credit

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • Christos Hrousis

    One of my personal project is marking up images from flickr and other sources, it’s a great way to get traffic to a site… Also great resource for stock images for building websites, it’s very important to know exactly how to look for images when you’re a bit tight on money. Thanks