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Everybody loves free photos and some of the coolest free photos on the web are on Unsplash. And you can also find loads on Flickr, Pixabay and other free photo sites & WP plugins offering “free” photos via an API.
Full Disclaimer: Imagify does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact an attorney directly. We specialize in image optimization, not lawsuits.
Are Unsplash Images Really Free?
Free doesn’t always mean free, especially on the web. You always should look into what the price tag is, who pays for it and how. There are some pros and cons to using free stock photos on your website.
There is a real risk that you could end up getting sued for using images you downloaded from a website offering them as “free” photos. You might not even realize that you have infringed the rights of a Copyright or Trademark owner.
So before you jump into the sweet but risky free photo pool, learn the rules of the game and know how to use free images in a safe way.
What is photo usage and how do free photos work?
A photograph can be used for free in specific cases. Photos and images can be used for various purposes with virtually infinite possibilities. It is quite risky to talk about free photos on the Internet without specifying the use cases. The way you plan to use images usually falls within two main use cases: commercial or editorial uses.
Photo usage is not the same as copyright or photo license. If you want to know more about royalty-free photos and rights-managed images, you can head on over to Pixel Rockstar. They have a very clear recap of how these things work so you can learn all about image licenses.
To use a photo or image commercially, the owner must grant permission for the element to be used commercially. Any trademarks (like logos or patented designs like the Coca-Cola logo or a photo of an iPhone) can only be used if there is a property release granted by the owner. The same goes for any other type of element that is subject to property rights like the lighting of the Eiffel tower for example. If the photo includes models, a model release accepting their image to be used must be assured as well.
Basically, there are a crazy number of copyrighted items being used all over the web illegally.
Editorial images often contain trademarks (cars, landmarks, etc.), brands and even people, but they do not need property and model releases as editorial use does allow for freedom of speech.
This type of use is often used by newspapers and magazines for news related photography.
Before you think you’ll be able to claim “editorial use” be aware that this type of use is very limited. It usually only allows you to support news articles. Editorial usage does not allow modifications to the artwork, and in some cases requires you to credit the author and the agency. Images labeled as editorial, are for editorial use only, and cannot be used for any kind of commercial or non- or for-profit use.
Free photos of People are NOT free
Most countries do not allow you to use photos from free photo sites like Pixabay or Unsplash if they depict people. Before you ask, all websites are concerned: personal and corporate.
Why are these laws in place? Because if you have people as the subject of the photos, they might not have signed a Model Release consenting their likeness to be used for free on the Internet (or anywhere else for that matter). If you use pictures with people on them, the responsibility for the use of these images does not fall on Unsplash, Pixabay, Flickr or similar sources, it falls on you. If anybody sues a publication for incorrect use of copyrighted photos, the responsibility always falls on the publisher. So get informed and read this article: How not to get sued when using free photos with People in your WordPress website.
You can use free photos of people, but you need to make sure that a Model Release was signed by the person. Most free photos websites do not check these things so you need to fend for yourself or steer clear of pictures with people in them.
Beware of free photos of Landmarks
The Eiffel Tower is a classic example for risky free photos and…a great opportunity to get sued. The law in France states that the Société Nouvelle d’exploitation de la Tour Eiffel, is the legal owner of the lighting, and has the copyright for it. This company needs to give permission for the use of the lighting in images, and it happens that they actively track and sue companies and people around the world for the improper use of photos with the Eiffel Tower lights installation. The Imagify team is quite aware of that because well…some of us are LE French!
If this has you curious regarding the use of landmarks in your photos: there’s a guide you can check out: Why you can’t use your Eiffel Tower photo in your WordPress. Depending on your use (commercial or editorial) you may or may not get sued. In general you should assume that if you are selling anything on your website to try to be on the safe side. There are also many other examples of other landmarks you have to be careful with like the Olympics, etc.
Brand and Famous Design Photos = legal trouble (for most of us)
Same issue again as with the Eiffel Tower for brands or recognizable & famous designs. These cases bring in trademark issues and copyright issues with them. You will encounter legal trouble if you use photos with famous brand logos or famous products. We recommend to read the full guide on trademark, brands and logos to understand why you cannot use these images in your corporate or personal blog.
Any photo material or images are the responsibility of the publisher (hint: that’s you)
Of course, some of you might think: “But hey, these images were all coming from other websites. Aren’t they supposed to check their photos are safe to use by publishers? Well, that would mean these companies would be offering a free service, and then performing revision and inspection of images on top of it. Most of these sites just don’t have the budget for that, and the truth is they don’t have a real reason to worry about is, as the responsibility for incorrect uses of images falls on the publisher.
Public Domain or Creative Commons Are Not Protecting You
You could also argue: “But the photo is tagged as Public Domain/Creative Commons Zero (CC0)/GNU… free to use for everyone, so why can’t I use it? The issue here is that you don’t know what the people uploading and sharing these photos know about copyright and trademarks. They feel like it’s ok to share photos under those free use licenses, but they cannot give away copyright they do not own, and they cannot grant use for the image of people whom have not signed a Model Release. And they might not be aware of that.
Get savvy with the guide to Creative Commons CC0 and free photos to make sure you are using photos in a legal way.
Can you use free photo sites? Yes, but you need to know the rules of the game.
Unsplash is awesome to find free, high quality images that you can share and reuse to use an image in your blog post, presentation, or website as long as you know what to look out for. A photo of a sunset, a garden without any recognizable objects, etc should be fine as long as the photographer did really share the image as a Public Domain resource or knew how to use Creative Commons.
It is true that copyright laws are arcane in many ways and that they need to change, but until that moment comes be on the safe side (especially when you sell anything on your website).
So what if you’re not ready to deal with the headache of copyright laws?
Then you get PixelRockstar. They guarantee legally safe pictures right in your WordPress. Search and add images to your posts in seconds and focus on creating awesome content instead of wondering if that free photo will get you sued.