Free images – and the rules for using images from the Internet safely

26 Mar 2021 | Research & Business Knowledge

  • Many people think that because a photo or image has been published on the Internet then they are free to use it however they wish.  This is not true, and you need to be very careful when selecting images for your own website, materials or presentations.

Copyright is a form of legal protection that is automatically assigned to the owner of the image – it doesn’t need to be registered or have a legal notice added – the rights to use, amend or sell the image always belong with the person who created/ took the image unless they have specficially stated otherwise.  So when you are tempted to ‘snip’ an image, remember;

  • Freely available doesn’t mean free
  • Just because it doesn’t have a copyright symbol doesn’t mean it isn’t protected
  • Without specific permission, you are just ‘taking’
  • Name checking the copyright owner is not enough

This effectively means that no one is able to use an image without express permission – just because it is in the public domain does not mean it is not copyrighted.  Content published online is still protected by copyright law.  If you have ever downloaded images from the net and republished them without permission, you may have been breaking the law.  And many clients’’ contracts now put the obligation on the supplier to ensure that images are properly licenced – so you may well be carrying the can!

So how can you find that perfect image and use it legally?

The images you need to use should ideally be using are those with ‘Creative Commons 2.0 attribution’ (or CC 2.0).  There are a number of sites out there that provide images with this license which allow you to alter the image however you like and use it without any attribution – just search for CC 2.0 and you’ll find a number of sources.

Here are a number of suggestions for finding free images that can be used freely;

Updated list March 2021

  • Flaticons
  • Unsplash
  • Pixabay
  • Pexels
  • The noun project

Original list


  • Search for images using key words as usual
  • When results are returned, click ‘search tools’
  • Choose ‘usage rights’ and select ‘labelled for reuse’


  • Search for images using a key word
  • When you get the results, click ‘advanced search’
  • Select the box which is labelled ‘search within Creative Commons licenced content’

Noun project

This site is particularly good for icons and infographics although you do need to mention them as your source in the document or you can pay a modest $9 per month

  • Type in a word (whether a noun or adjective) and it generates dozens if not hundreds depending on the word or words you type in
  • Drag and drop. It is also quite intuitive.

Other recommended sites with free images

Many thanks to all E-group contributors who made suggestions/ comments on this topic.

Disclaimer:  The author is not a legal expert, and this article reflects her current understanding of the issue (which may not be definitive).  Please treat this as purely a guide to the ‘dos and don’ts’ when using images.