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How to Source Copyright Free Images

Finding images without copyright can be tricky

Copyright gives protection to a wide range of work, including images such as photographs, drawings, paintings and original graphics. Copyright is automatically granted in the UK – copyright holders don’t have to apply for it, and they don’t need to register their right.

Although some holders put the copyright symbol © on their work, this isn’t legally necessary – the absence of the symbol doesn’t mean a work is copyright free.

Avoiding copyright issues

Copyright in most artistic work lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator. So any image created in the past 100 years is likely to have copyright protection.

However, copyright owners, such as photographers, graphic designers, painters and illustrators can decide to:

  • let anyone else use their original work
  • allow the work be copied or adapted in some way
  • ask for a royalty or licence payment if the work is used
  • sell the copyright

If you want to use a photograph or image, for example in your website or in your online video marketing, you must:

  • find who the copyright owner is
  • check whether you can use the image
  • ask if there’s a licence fee or royalty to pay
  • find out if there is any condition applied to use (such as acknowledging copyright ownership)

Royalty free images

Many photographers and illustrators publish royalty free images, often as a way of promoting themselves. There are several websites that offer collections of these royalty free images, although not all images are entirely free to use.

Sometimes ‘royalty free’ means that there is a charge for the image itself, but afterwards you can use it as you wish – although you’re not usually allowed to re-sell it. It’s also possible to buy collections of royalty free images from photo agencies.

Completely free images are usually offered on condition that a credit is given to the copyright holder and/or the agency. Check the terms and conditions on the site.

Commissioning original photographs or images

If you get someone to take a photograph or create an image, check that the copyright will be transferred to you. Some copyright holders give limited rights (eg for usage in a specific medium such as an online video) but retain overall copyright. This is their right, and you have to decide whether to accept it before you commission the work.