Blogging, Copyright, and How to Attribute Images

April 1st, 2014
by flickr user under CC BY license

by flickr user under CC BY license

I’m teaching a class on blogging this semester at Southeast Missouri State University. As we discussed the importance of images in blogging and storytelling, I told the class, “Just because it’s on the Internet does not mean it’s free!” I explained that you must attribute any image you use back to its origin.  Unfortunately, that was not explanation enough and apparently caused confusion.  As I struggled to explain more thoroughly, I thought there have to be others out there with this same perplexity!

“The law automatically grants full “copyright” over any creative work a person makes unless otherwise stated.

Copyright law is incredibly complex. Adding to that complexity is the fact that most of the laws governing copyright were written long before the World Wide Web. Regardless, here are some tips and best practices.

If you are unwilling or unable to pay copyright royalties, you have essentially three options:

1. Use free public domain images.

2. Use Creative Commons® images.

3. Use your own photos or use images you’ve created (from scratch—you cannot modify someone else’s image and call it your own)

Public Domain explains that a work of authorship is in the public domain “if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”

These types of images are ideal for blogging or educational use.  Works may also be public domain if their copyright has expired or if they are uncopyrightable. Even public domain images should be attributed to and linked back to the source. Two sources for finding public domain images are The Public Domain Review and The Getty Open Content.

Creative Commons

If you can’t find public domain images that fit your needs, you can use Creative Commons-licensed images – as long as you correctly attribute according to the terms of the license under which the image is offered.  Some Creative Commons images only require attribution and link-back, others are only available for non-commercial use, or may be used but not altered. This infographic by adityadipankar is a great “crash course” in Creative Commons:

What is Creative Commons?

by Folography.
Explore more visuals like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

There are a number of sites where you may find usable images.  Creative Commons and Wikimedia are two.  My personal favorites are Flickr and Google Images—but you have to filter on only those with a creative commons license. For example, on Flickr it’s at but on Google, you have to go to the advanced image search and scroll down to “usage rights” and choose “free to use or share.”  Keep in mind, Google protects itself with the warning:

BurrellesLuce Fresh Ideas Image Attribution Google

So, you found a usable image but aren’t sure exactly how to properly attribute the photo? This blog post (by Peter McDermott) does a great job of explaining and demonstrating:

The bottom line when looking for images to use in your blog posts (or web page, portfolio, etc.)… as Benjamin Franklin said, “When in doubt, don’t! “

What sources do you use for finding images? What advice would you add?

7 Responses to “Blogging, Copyright, and How to Attribute Images”

  1. Toni Eftink says:

    Bookmarked this for future reference! I haven’t used Creative Commons mainly b/c I didn’t want to figure out how to attribute those images, so this will be useful. 🙂 Thanks!

  2. Thank you, Toni–so glad you found it useful. I think sometimes people forget that it’s just as important to protect creative works as it is intellectual work!

  3. Liz says:

    Very useful information; I am a beginning graphic artist / designer and I was wondering how an artist would handle the use of clip art on printed brochures or business cards? I realize some computer programs CorelDraw for one; comes with a CD of clip art or MS Word has a supply of standard clip art. These images would constitute ‘free domain use?’ FOREVER? as long as they are used? There’s a website called Fotosearch which brings up clip art or photos one can use for documents; sometimes it says ROYALTY FREE…

    Can you explain what Royalty Free means? Is it the same as Public Domain? Also can
    you explain first rights? Second rights? to use of images created?

    Thank you.

  4. Liz, thanks for reading and taking time to comment. I am, by no means, a copyright expert by I’ll try to answer. “Royalty Free” typically means you do not have to pay (copyright royalties/fee) however, you may still need permission and/or may need to attribute the original work–just depends on the specific license. When it comes to ‘standard’ clip art, those are typically both royalty free and public domain, but I would look for a “terms of use,” FAQ, and/or “license agreement” section and read to be sure. I hope that helps a little!

  5. Liz says:

    Very useful. So then; using clip art on a brochure; a small business doesn’t have to worry that one day the artist who created the art isn’t going to say…HEY that’s my art you’re making money from…you owe me! In the case of the McDonald’s logo of the
    golden arches…McDonald’s no doubt bought ‘all rights to that image’ … anyone
    who reproduces or altars only slightly and uses the Golden Arches elsewhere; is
    liable for paying a hefty fine of infringement of copyright to the logo.

    When ‘artist’ sells his work to whomever puts in on a CD …ahhh this is when the term ‘first rights’ comes in …correct? The artist gives first rights to the maker of the software program; to distribute his or her work as they wish. (having received a fair payment for that work) All rights reserved would mean artist reserves right to payment each time that piece of art gets used? second rights…(I’m speaking this from a vague recollection of art school days) second rights means the artist and the one artist sells to retain ‘rights’ to work…the buyer of his creation gets second rights while artist retains first rights? yes? Naturally; the artist fee is less to holder of second rights

    I have also heard that a ‘cheaper’ way of protecting one’s work (cheaper than
    official copyright) is to put the original work in an envelope and mail it to oneself…
    and leave envelope UNOPENED. The US MAIL agency is bonafide proof of ownership
    to that work; then one needs only put a circle with a C in it … when reproducing
    the work. Have you heard this?

  6. Liz, I appreciate all the thought you’ve put into the questions you’re asking–they’re very good! However, copyright law is very complex and I am not a copyright lawyer. The research I did for this article was more on the side of those using the art, not so much in creating it. IMHO, the best course of action would be to consult creative copyright legal counsel. Best wishes!

  7. Liz says:

    You know Tressa; after I submitted my question, I too realized this was not in realm of topic and I apologize for that. (it’s same ballpark but an entirely different game) You are astute in saying questions on copyright for any writer or artist must be taken up with one’s publisher or counselor. I want to add though, you are definitely of the professionalism that IS BurrellesLuce managerial. Let no one take that from you; you OWN your knowledge, skill, and business professional manner it shows through even in this blog of words. GOOD WORK!

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