How to avoid copyright infringement with images

Have you ever searched for the perfect image only to be frustrated by watermarks? Perhaps you've been unlucky enough to be stung with a copyright notice after using something you didn't have permission to use.

Images make a big difference to user engagement, so it's vital that you use them in your digital content, but how do you avoid copyright infringement with images?

What are copyrighted images?

Copyright law is designed to protect people's work and stop others from using it without permission.

Laws around copyright are different from country to country. For example, in the US, although copyright applies automatically in theory, registering copyright is required before an infringement suit can be brought. That registration is handled by the United States Copyright Office.

In the UK, this protection applies automatically without the need for registration. There's no application process or payment required, and as a result there's no register of copyrighted works.

Some creators make their works freely available, while others may sell them or allow them to be recreated for a fee.

Copyrighted images are photographs or digitally created images where the creator has restricted their use.

How do I know if an image is copyrighted?

Unless you're looking at images on a website like Shutterstock or Getty Images that make it clear when an image isn't freely available, it can be tricky to determine whether or not an image is copyrighted or not.

Here are five ways you can check.

1. Is there an image credit?

If you're considering taking an image from another website, look for a caption that might include an image credit, link or contact email address. If there is one, reach out to the owner and ask for permission to use the image.

2. Is there a watermark?

If there's a faint watermark across the image, that means it's copyrighted.

Usually watermarks will be repeated multiple times across the image so are hard to miss (and make them unsuitable for use anyway), but look carefully in case it's not been made obvious.

3. Check the metadata

Metadata refers to the digital information that's stored within the image file. This metadata will often store info related to the image's copyright.

To view a file's metadata in Windows, first right-click on the image and select 'Properties', and then click on the 'Details' tab.

To view the metadata in macOS click on 'Tools' when viewing the image in Preview, then 'Show Inspector', and then the 'i' icon. Finally, click on the 'EXIF' tab.

4. Do a Google reverse image search

If you're not sure where an image came from, try running a reverse image search on Google. You can either enter the image's URL or upload a file saved to your local machine.

You'll find everwhere that image is located on the internet, and hopefully get to the bottom of who owns it and whether it's free to use.

5. Still not sure? Don't use it.

Using copyrighted images can lead to awkward conversations with creators and ultimately lead to legal action, so our advice is, if you're not sure if you have permission from the copyright holder, don't use it and find another one.

We don't recommend grabbing random images from the web (more on where you can get license-free images shortly…), particularly Google Image search, but if you do, exercise a lot of caution.

Can I edit images to avoid copyright infringement?

Companies like Getty Images use software to identify when an image has been used online without permission, which leads people to think they can sufficiently edit an asset to avoid being detected, or cover themselves legally.

While it might be possible to edit an image enough to avoid it being detected, for example using software like Adobe Photoshop or InDesign, we would advise against it, and it does not get you off the hook from a legal perspective.

If you edit an image that you didn't create, copyright law still applies. The only way to avoid copyright infringement with images is to create unique works, purchase a license to use an image or find a free-to-use image.

READ MORE: Top 5 free picture editors

3 free stock image websites

Fortunately, there are a number of websites that offer access to free images that have no license restrictions. Here are three of the best.

1. Unsplash


One of our go-to stock image websites for free-to-use imagery is Unsplash. Their tagline is 'reinventing the stock photo', and state that they only accept 'the finest quality images'.

Conduct a keyword-based search or browse by category and you'll discover a huge selection of free stock images, as well as premium images available via iStock (with 20% off).

2. Burst


Created by Shopify and intended for entrepreneurs, Burst offers another great collection of free, high-resolution stock images.

Browse by collections, including 'Animals', 'Nature' and 'City', or via their 'Business Ideas' section. There are 26 business idea categories in total, and while niche, will provide perfect stock images if your small business idea is covered.

3. Pixabay


Boasting over 2.5 million free images, Pixabay offers visual content from a wide range of categories - including photos, vector graphics and illustrations - but they also provide royalty free sound effects too.

You can browse their free sound database by length or audio as well as eight categories, including nature, city, technology and even horror.

How a Digital Asset Management system helps to manage copyright

Although free images don't require any copyright management, it's likely that your organisation is using images with usage restrictions to some degree. However, managing this copyright can be tricky, especially if your digital asset library extends to hundreds - or even thousands - of images.

A Digital Asset Management (DAM) system, such as ResourceSpace, makes this process simple.

Our License Manager allows you to quickly and easily create specific licenses, and associate them with one or more resources. This can be managed on an individual asset level, or for multiple resources at once.

The benefit of using a DAM like ResourceSpace for license management is that it keeps everything all in one place, so there's no need to search through multiple folders for the related files.

Want to find out more about how ResourceSpace solves the copyright management process and helps you to avoid copyright infringement with images? Click here.