4 Things You Need to Know Before Downloading Free Stock Photos

For marketers, graphic designers, and social media strategists, using high-quality imagery is essential to capture the attention of your audience. With hundreds of stock photo services available, finding the right image no longer comes with the hassle of having to use the boss’ credit card.  All is well then, right? See, the issue at hand is that many people do not know these free stock photo sites have protected themselves from any legal responsibility that may come about as a result of improper use. This leaves you exposed and at risk of being caught red-handed with a copyrighted photo.

So, what should you do to ensure the photo you’re downloading is legal? Here are four things you need to know.

1. Stock Photos Are the Responsibility of the Publisher (That’s You)

It’s easy to assume a free downloadable image from a stock photo service is safe to use. What you may not know is that many free stock photo websites do not have control over what is being uploaded, making creative assets “download at your own risk.” It’s ultimately up to you to obtain the proper releases, understand the different types of licensing and trademarks, and read the underlying terms and conditions. The frequently used “Free to Use” statement means that photography from the service comes with a very broad copyright license. This does not include the rights to utilize any trademarks, logos, brands, identifiable people, or works of art included in the photos. For example, a portrait shot of a person wearing a Nike (Speaking of Nike, remember this?) branded t-shirt infringes against the world-famous trademark.

You may not realize free stock photo websites deem themselves exempt from these types of legal implications. This is BIG news, considering it can leave the door open for a potential lawsuit on the business side of things (something we’d like to help you avoid, like the plague).

2. Types of Photo Licensing and Trademarks

Preventing a legal dispute begins with understanding the different types of licensing and trademarks. The most common include:


In laymen’s terms, copyright means owning property. When a photographer takes a photo, they hold the right to sell, share, license or keep ownership of that photo. In the instance a buyer is interested, the photographer is required to come to a mutual agreement. Copyright attaches as soon as the original work is created, and applies to both published and unpublished works.

Royalty-Free License

This license grants the buyer a determined set of rights for a one-time fee. A photographer still holds ownership to the image, where the buyer acquires the right to use the image. This type of licensing is one of the most common among stock photography services.

Rights-Managed License

Rights managed refers to a copyright license that permits the one-time use of a photo. It is more rigid than a royalty-free license, as it typically comes with an expiration date and additional pay-per-use costs if someone wants to use the photo in ways outside of the agreement.

Creative Commons License

A lot of the images uploaded onto free stock photo websites are under a creative commons (CC) license. This means the photographer has granted permission to share and use their work. However, finding a creative commons image on a stock photo site does not necessarily mean you, the publisher has the right to use that photo. Even if you’ve read and fulfilled the license’s conditions, this does not mean the person who uploaded the image has done the same.

3. Requirements for Commercially Used Stock Photos

It goes a little something like this:

  • A photographer takes a photo
  • A photographer holds the rights to the photo
  • A photographer releases all rights to the photo when they upload it to a stock photo site

Seems pretty simple, right? Think again. A hidden danger lies within the rights the photographer does NOT own. Such rights include model and property rights, trademarks, and copyrights. Legally, a photographer and the publisher, need to obtain a release from every rights holder in the photo to be used for commercial purposes. This includes a model release for any identifiable person in the photo.

A model release is always required upon publication of a photo taken of an identifiable person used for direct commercial use, which is defined as promoting a product, service, or idea — this legal document signed by the subject of a photograph grants permission for the photo to be published.

You’re probably asking right about now, “Okay, so what’s the big deal?”

The photo is available to download, so all releases must have been obtained, right? Believe it or not, a majority of free photo-sharing services, including Unsplash, Pexels or Pixabay, do not require photographers to provide releases when uploading photos. They simply trust the photographers (and other uploaders) have obtained the necessary documentation from all rights holders in the image.

4. The Consequences

We’re no lawyers (we’re totally cool and savvy marketers though), but we can state with absolute confidence the continuous use of risky images in visual content can eventually lead to an empty pocket and a tarnished brand image. Publication of a photo of an identifiable person, that implies endorsement, without a model release signed by that person, can result in privacy infringement for whoever publishes the photograph.

Cease and Desist or Find Yourself in Front of a Judge

If a photographer were to find you using one of their photos without permission, be ready to receive a friendly letter or email asking to remove the image. If you choose to ignore the request, a Cease and Desist order will follow suit. And if you once again ignore their appeal, you’ll most likely be facing a lawsuit.

Penalized by Google

Any duplicate content on your website, such as a photo makes Google confused, and that could leave you penalized.

Casts a Shadow Over Your Brand

Even if it was just an honest mistake, your credibility will be impacted, as the general public may feel a ‘stolen’ image reflects just how your company does business with taking shortcuts and not following procedures.

When in doubt, assume an image is subject to copyright and don’t use it without the appropriate permission. You can also explore other options such as investing in a paid stock photo service such as Shutterstock® or Adobe® or even hiring a photographer to create your own library of photos for future content creation.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this article is to provide general information to help you avoid unpleasant situations when using stock photos. It is not meant to advise or replace the advisement of a licensed attorney.