It is well known that images are clicked on social media. And they’re also what we click over. In general, posts with images get more views, likes, and shares than posts without.

However, it is not always easy to find visual resources for social media. The legal information found in image copyright policies can be daunting. From Non-Commercial-Non-Derivative Attribution licenses to “fair use”, there is a lot to unpack.

There is also much at stake. Copyright violations can take your business to court with hefty fines, and “I didn’t know better” is not considered a valid defense. Especially if an image is used for social media marketing. Ask Success Kid’s mom.

But once you know the rules, they are easy to follow. There are also several stock photography sites that make finding photos for social media stress-free.

We answer all your image copyright questions and share the best resources below.

Simply put, image copyright is image ownership. It is a form of legal protection automatically granted to its creator when an image is captured, saved or drawn. Photos, digital art, maps, charts and illustrations are all fair game.

Image copyright laws vary by country. Fortunately, 177 countries, including Canada and the United States, are members of the Berne Convention agreement, which sets fundamental copyright standards.

Under the agreement (and Canadian and US copyright laws), a copyright holder has exclusive rights to:

  • reproduce work
  • Making derivatives of work
  • Show work publicly
  • Distribute the work to the public

It sounds simple, but it can be confusing at times.

Here is an example. Remember the star-studded selfie taken on Ellen DeGeneres’ phone during the 2014 Academy Awards? Technically, the copyright holder of that image is Bradley Cooper. Why? He took the photo despite using Degeneres’ phone.

This means, legally, Degeneres must ask Cooper for permission to publish the photo. This example is popular with intellectual property lawyers, who use it to show that copyright ownership isn’t always as clear as it sounds.

If it’s not your image, find out who created it and ask for permission to use it.

Have more questions? Check out the World Intellectual Property Organization FAQs.

What is fair use?

Fair use is an exception to the rule when it comes to copyright. It concerns certain situations in which copyrighted works may be used without permission.

Common contexts for fair use include criticism, news reporting, teaching or research. In these cases, copyrighted work is typically used as reference material and in a “beneficial” way.

Fair use rarely applies to social media marketing. In fact, Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Code evaluates fair use cases based on these four factors:

  • Commercial, non-profit or educational?
  • Is the copyrighted work highly creative or more factual?
  • How much of the work has been reproduced?
  • How does use affect the potential market for the original work?
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These are Graham v. Those were the questions asked in the Prince case. In 2017, Richard Prince was sued by photographer Donald Graham after he printed screenshots of Graham and other Instagram posts on canvases and displayed them in a gallery. Prince argued that the art of appropriation falls under the “fair use” exemption. However, the judge ruled otherwise, stating that the work “does not make any fundamental aesthetic changes” and that it was made for commercial purposes.

Images used for social media marketing without copyright clearance are unlikely to meet fair use criteria. Remember, if you take risks, you can be held liable for copyright infringement.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative commons is a set of licenses that converts “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved”. In other words, these licenses allow creators to give people permission to use their work. Many sites take advantage of these permissions, including Wikipedia, YouTube, TED, and Flickr.

“Some rights reserved” licenses do not give anyone full authority to use the content as they wish. There are different types of licenses that determine how an image can be used:

  • Attribution Non-Commercial-Non-Derivative Works (CC BY-NC-ND): This license means that anyone can use a work but cannot modify it or make money using it.
  • Attribution Non-Derivative Works (CC BY-ND): A work with this license cannot be modified, but can be used for commercial purposes.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC): The works can be changed, but they cannot be used for commercial purposes.
  • Attribution (CC BY): Modifications and commercial use are acceptable.
  • Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (CC BY-NC-SA): Studies are subject to change – but with stated limitations. It should not be used in sales contexts.
  • Like Citation Sharing (CC BY-SA): The work can be modified and commercially used within limitations.
  • Public property: If a creator renounces all rights or copyright expires, the work becomes public domain. On Creative Commons this is usually listed as CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0).

The safest options – especially if you intend to use images for social media marketing – only association and CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) public domain licenses. Remember, any license that includes the word “attribution” means you have to give credit to the creator.

Still not sure which license to use? Try this license selector.

How do you know if you can use an image on social media?

Social media may seem like a gray area when it comes to image copyright, but it isn’t.

The same rules apply. If you wish to use an image that does not belong to you, whether through a license or directly through its creator, you must obtain permission to use it. If you request permission and it is granted, keep a record on hand for future reference.

When someone posts a picture on a public account, that doesn’t make it public domain. They still own the copyrights. But there are some unique ways that copyright can be shared on social media.

Sharing photos

Sharing images within the platform is generally OK if sharing is allowed on the platform. Retweets, reposts, reposts, or posts shared on an Instagram story automatically credit the creator. Also, these actions are only possible if someone has these account permissions enabled.

Furniture maker Article has a featured Instagram story only to share posts or stories that have tagged his account.

Screenshot of an Instagram Story according to the article

Repost images in the feed

Many brands repost user-generated content on sites like Instagram. However, permission is required as there is no built-in feature that allows reposting.

It’s popular for brands to encourage people to share their photos with a branded hashtag for a chance to be featured in the company feed. The hashtag promotes your brand and makes it easy to find user-generated content, but it doesn’t count as permissions.

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Before reposting a photo (with or without a hashtag), send a DM or comment to make sure the creator is involved. An example from Adobe’s Instagram account:

Adobe

You can find Adobe’s terms and conditions here. See Airbnb’s user-generated content terms or Agoda’s #agodaGo agreement for more examples.

Here are a few photo libraries and archives that offer free and legal images.

Google is a good place to start an image search, as the results will include photos from Flickr and other stock photography sites.

To get started, go to Advanced Image Search. Enter your keywords and specify the size, ratio and other details as desired. If you’re not sure what sizes you’ll need for social media images, check here.

At the end of the form, select the applicable usage rights. For social media marketing this is either “free to use or share even commercially” or “free to use, share or modify even commercially”.

When you find an image you like, click on the page to double-check the license.

google advanced image search

Free stock photo sites

There are several free stock photo sites available. Some sites like Gratisography and Jay Mantri offer a wide selection of work shot by professional photographers. Others, like FoodiesFeed or NewOldStock, offer niche shots of food and kickbacks.

Several stock photo libraries have been created in recent years to promote diversity and inclusion on social media. Some are free and some have license fees. We’ve collected some of them here:

  • 67% Collection by Refinery29 and Getty Images
  • No Apologies Collection by Refinery29 and Getty Images
  • Gender Spectrum Collection by Vice
  • #ShowUs Collection from Dove, Getty Images and Girlgaze
  • Brewer’s Collective Ellevate with Unsplash and Pexels
  • The Disrupt Aging Collective by Getty Images and AARP
  • Disability Collection by Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Getty Images, Verizon Media, and the National Alliance for Disability Leadership (NDLA)

Read the detailed print before using the photos from the stock library. While many are free and ready to use, some may have different licenses.

Creative Commons search portal

Creative Commons offers an image search portal that allows filtering by license. Make sure to check the box stating you are looking for something you can use for commercial use. If you plan to modify the image by cropping it, adding text or adding filters, Modify or Adapt box too.

Creative Commons image search

Planning to edit an image? Try these 16 tools to create fast and beautiful social media images.

flickr

As a photo hosting site for professional and amateur photographers, Flickr is another good database. After entering your search term, click on it. any license. From there, choose from “commercial use allowed”, “commercial use and mods allowed” or “no known copyright restrictions”.

Flickr image search with "commercial use and allowed modes" filter

Getty Pictures

Getty, the world’s largest photography agency, offers access to more than 200 million images in its archive, from photography to vintage illustrations.

There are currently three different licensing models available: royalty-free (RF), rights-ready (RR) and managed rights (RM). Soon all images will be royalty-free, which is your safest bet. This license provides global use without expiration. Also, it does not impose any limitations on the amount the image can be used on.

These images are not free, but they are legal. And depending on the initiative they may be worth the cost.

Search with "copyright free license" filter on Getty images

Are you ready to start using legal images on social media? Here are a few tips for creating engaging visual content.

Moyens I/O’s social media scheduler includes an up-to-date media library with free images from Pixabay, GIPHY, and more, so you never have to worry about image copyright when posting. Try it for free today.

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