Are You Using Illegal Photos on Your Website?

Imagine this: You’re writing a blog post and need a photo, so you search for free stock photos that would fit. There’s a site in the results that offers downloads of stock photos and has the perfect picture for your post. Great! You grab it and go. After all, it said “free” — didn’t it? But you didn’t read the fine print because who actually reads the fine print? Fast forward to 2 years later, when you receive an email stating that the photo’s owner is suing you for $20,000 for using that photo.  A photo you thought was public domain.

Do you feel that sense of panic?

While this sounds like an urban myth, we have seen it happen to people. And we want to make sure it does not happen to you.

Using beautiful stock photos from talented photographers can make your website and content shine, so we certainly don’t want to scare you away from using other people’s photos altogether. We want to you to be smart about it.

Here’s how to avoid legal issues when utilizing stock photos on your website and social media posts:

1. Never assume that you can use a photo

No matter what the title of a website says, do not assume you can copy, download, or share their photos. Do not assume that because it is on a stock photo site you can use it for free. Do not assume that because it is on a news website you can use it for free. Do not assume that because it has been used on other websites you trust you can use it for free. Do not assume that because it comes up on a Google image search for free images you can use it for free.  Do a little detective work first!

2. Read that license

This is the part that really matters. Every photo is copyrighted in some way and if you are planning to use it on your site, you need to have a license for it. This does not mean that you have to pay for a license, but it does mean that someone has told you when and how you can reproduce the photo. Some photos are licensed under a royalty-free Creative Commons Zero License, meaning basically that you can do whatever you want with them. Other photos are licensed for each use, or licensed such that once you pay a fee you can use them as many times as you want. To avoid any confusion, read your license before using the photo! Tip: Most stock photo sites have a “License” tab which explains this for you.

3. Use trusted sites for free images

There are several stock photo sites that offer free images with a clearly written license that states you can use them for commercial purposes. These sites have thousands of gorgeous images, and you can probably find what you are looking for here! Tip: Most free photo sites offer the photographer’s name for you to credit him/her – we recommend you do as a courtesy. Here are some of our favorite trusted sites for free photos:

  1. Unsplash
  2. Pexels
  3. Death to Stock Photo (free and premium)
  4. Stocksnap
4. Consider a subscription or paid stock photos

Sometimes you can’t find exactly what you need on a free site. Our favorite paid stock photography site is Stocksy. There are also several stock photo subscription services like Twenty20, HauteStock, and Adobe Stock which might work for you if you need a high volume of curated stock photos each month.


When a pricy lawsuit is at stake, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you are using someone else’s photo, make absolutely sure that you have the permission you need to use it the way you intend. If you’re not sure about a photo, let it go and move on — your future self will thank you.

We’d love to hear from you: What are your favorite ways or places to get gorgeous photos for your website?