This article discusses copyright and using Google images. Google images is a search engine and not a depository for copyright-free images or images that are in the public domain. As a general rule, you should assume that all images found through a Google search or that you otherwise locate online are protected by copyright unless and until you find out otherwise.
Scroll below to download our tip sheet on copyright and using Google images.
Have You Found the Perfect Image on Google?
How many times have you used Google or another search engine and found the perfect image, illustration or photograph? Or perhaps a map, table or infographic?
As tempting as it is to copy and paste that image or photograph on your website, in your electronic book or elsewhere, and perhaps even manipulate it for your purposes, you need to consider copyright law before doing so.
Google is a search engine that helps you locate content such as images, photos and other content. Google search engine is not a collection of public domain or copyright-free works. Google directs you to images and photos and other online content according to your search criteria. Once you find that perfect image or photo, you must treat that image like any other content you find online.
In September 2018, Google announced initiatives that make it easier for you to find creator and copyright information. They will now provide links to image creator, credit and copyright notice metadata, whenever available for images on Google Images. For more information, see their blog post Image Rights Metadata in Google Images.
It’s always prudent to start by assuming that the image is protected by copyright law in your own country and around the world. Then do your copyright research. Take the necessary effort and steps to determine if the image is protected by copyright. If it is protected by copyright, and no license is attached to it, you need to get permission to use it before you use it.
For tips on copyright and using Google images, also see
Assume that Online Content is Protected by Copyright
To start your research on legally using images, you should assume that all online images are protected by copyright. If you’re fortunate, the copyright owner’s name will be on the image with a link to click to contact the copyright owner and ask for permission. And likewise, the copyright owner will promptly reply. But this best case scenario will not always be the scenario you’re facing.
It may take time, effort and creativity in your research to determine the name of the copyright owner. Then you need to investigate whether they’re still alive and when the duration of copyright will expire or whether it has expired.
In some circumstances, your research will reveal that your use of the image doesn’t require permission. For example, images and photographs in the public domain do not require permission.
Terms and Conditions Applying to the Use of Images
Is there a Creative Commons (CC) license attached to the image or photograph that permits limited or unlimited use of that image without communicating with the copyright owner? There are various CC licenses that allow you to use an image or photograph (or other content) without obtaining permission from the copyright owner. But you’ll need to read that license and see what’s permitted. You may be able to only use the image as-is or perhaps you can modify it. Or, you may be able to use it for noncommercial purposes only and you may need to acknowledge the owner of the image.
Copyright and Using Google Images
When you’re using images you find online (or elsewhere), keep in mind the following factors:
- Determining whether an image, photograph or other content is protected by copyright or not may take time. Begin your research as early as possible — as soon as you decide you want to use a certain image or photograph.
- Act on facts. Don’t just think an “old” photo is free for the taking or an image without a copyright symbol or notice is always free to use. See other copyright myths.
- If you don’t see permission clearly indicated on an image or photograph, then you need to investigate the copyright status of it and determine whether you need to obtain permission prior to using the image or photo.
5 Best Practices for Copyright and Using Google Images
- Copyright-wise, it’s always less risky to link to a photo or other image than it is to copy and paste that image onto your website or social media platform. (And it’s best not to embed that link but rather to set out a URL.)
- When possible, use photos and other images that you’ve taken yourself. Unless you’re employed and took the photos as part of your job, you own the copyright in your own photos. (Don’t forget to obtain a model release from any persons in your photographs. This isn’t a copyright issue, but a privacy/publicity issue.) Also keep in mind that if you’ve licensed your images to someone else, you may be limiting your own use of those images.
- Use images that have a Creative Commons (CC) license. However, be aware that a CC license is just that: a license. You need to read its terms and conditions and see what’s allowed or not. Not all CC licenses allow the same uses. A CC license may allow use as-is, or in a remix or as part of a new work, and in most cases requires attribution of the copyright owner.
- Purchase images from stock photo agencies and follow the license terms. Remember, you’re not outright buying the image from a stock agency, but are paying for certain uses of it. Read the specific terms and conditions (to which you have agreed). For example, you may be able to post the image on your website but may require additional permission to use the image on the front cover of a print book.
- When you seek permission from the copyright owner of an image, always ask first if they actually own the copyright in the image. The image’s creator may have assigned their rights to someone else, or the photographs or other images may have been created at work as part of the creator’s employment duties. In these latter cases, the photographers or other image creators don’t have the right to provide you with permission to use their work.
Want more helpful information like this? See our Legally Using Images eTutorial.