How To Avoid A Lawsuit When Using Free Stock Photos

Free stock photos can get you arrested!
Disclaimer: The following article is meant to help you avoid unpleasant situations when using free photos. But it is not intended to be legal advice so please do not take it as such. I recommend consulting an attorney with any questions.

I think you’ll agree with me when I say:

It’s REALLY important to avoid legal problems when using images on your website or any other of your projects.

With sites like Unsplash, Pexels, and Pixabay around, it is today easier than ever to find free stock photos…

But, is it really as safe as you think it is to use those beautiful free assets?

Well, as it turns out, there are a few dangers you need to be aware of.

The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of practice to learn how to identify those dangers and after you do it once or twice, it should become a quick and easy process for you to find photos that can be used without worry.

The problem with free stock photos in plain English

What most people think when downloading a free photo is that the only entity with rights to that photo is the photographer who took it.

And it is true that when a photographer uploads a photo to a free stock site like Unsplash or Pixabay, she or he knowingly forfeits all rights to the photo.

So with the photographer’s rights out of the way, there is nothing to worry about, right?


Let’s say that a photo is released on Unsplash, arguably the largest site in this space.

Now let’s have a look at the Unsplash motto:
Download free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos.

Do whatever you want” as in “use photos for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.

Just by looking at that bit of the Unsplash license, one can be led to think that any image on Unsplash can be used for commercial purposes.

If you think that too, you are in dangerous waters!

Why? Because…

A photographer cannot release rights she or he doesn’t own

There are several rights that may exist in a photo that the photographer doesn’t necessarily own and therefore cannot release.

Examples of such rights:

  • Model rights
  • Property rights
  • Trademark
  • Copyright

In order for a photographer to allow you to use a photo commercially, he or she needs to obtain a legal document known as a “release” from every rights holder in the photo.

For example, a model release has to be obtained if there is an identifiable person in the photo. Like so:

Photo with identifiable person from Kaboompics
This photo from Kaboompics features an easily identifiable person. It is safe to use commercially because a model release has been collected by Kaboompics.

You may be shocked to know that sites like Unsplash or Pexels or Pixabay or StockSnap, do NOT collect releases. They trust photographers to only upload photos for which they have obtained the necessary releases but they do not validate the fact.

To be fair, doing so would probably be unsustainable for them from a financial standpoint.

However, there are some sites out there that collect releases. Kaboompics is one of them (according to their own statement) but, as you would expect, their image library isn’t as broad.

Without any further ado, let’s have a look at how you can stay on the safe side.

The 5 questions you need to answer before downloading and using free stock photos

Yes, there are only five.

  1. Is the license current?
  2. Is your use commercial?
  3. If so, are releases needed and have they been collected?
  4. Are there any copyright issues?
  5. Are there items in the photo protected by trademark law?

Now let’s have a closer look at each one:

1. Is the license current?

It is extremely common for free stock photo sites to source or curate images from one another. For example, Pexels states they source images from Pixabay, Gratisography, Little Visuals as well as other sites.

Now, let’s assume a photo is originally uploaded to site A and then somehow ends up in site B.

The photographer changes his mind about offering the photograph for free so he takes it down from site A (where it was originally uploaded). Little does he know the photo was also posted on site B.

Everyone who had downloaded the photo from site A before the photographer took it down can still use it under the license that was valid the moment they downloaded it.

But people who download the photo from site B after the photographer takes it down from site A do NOT have the right to use it.

A scenario like this unfolding is partially why Unsplash now prohibits redistribution of their photos.

What to do

Try to trace the image back to the original source (typically the photographer who took it) to confirm the license. I know it sounds like a lot of work but it is the only way to be 100% sure you are legally using the photo.

For example, I found this one on Pexels:

Typewriter - Pexels

As you can see, this image was added to Pexels by I could go straight to RawPixel to confirm the license but I decided to do a Google search for the image first:

Google image search for the above image

What I found was that same image was also posted on, Unsplash, and Pixabay. The good news, in this case, is that ALL of those (including Pexels) pointed back to RawPixel.

I took that as a strong indication that RawPixel is the original source.

So I visited their site to confirm the image was still there and then looked at the license.

As it turns out, not only is it there but they have a model and property release on file for it which makes the image perfectly safe to use commercially:

Rawpixel - Typewriter

You can see for yourself here.

Now if I had gone back to RawPixel and the image wasn’t there, that would be a huge red flag.

But if everything looks legit when YOU do this, you can proceed to the next step and ask yourself the second question.

2. Is your use commercial?

NO: you generally do not have to worry about model and property releases.

YES: you need to make absolutely sure the needed releases (if any) have been collected.

How to tell if your use is commercial

It is generally agreed that any activity that sells or promotes, a product, a service, a website, an idea or a concept for-profit falls right into this category. But with that being said, there is no clear definition of “commercial use”. It can get confusing at times.

If you are not sure, you should consult an attorney.

Or you could just assume your use is commercial (as that is more often the case), steer clear of using the photo you are looking at (that you’re not sure about) and just carry on to find one that can clearly be used commercially.

If you have determined your use is commercial, the time has come to move to the next question:

3. Are releases needed and have they been collected?

As already mentioned, you do not need to worry about model and property releases if your use is editorial.

But if your use is commercial, you need to be certain that the photographer has collected all the necessary releases. If you do not see any other way to make sure of that, contact whoever took the photo and wait for their reply.

Most lawsuits happen not because of the photograph itself but because of how it was used. A photographer can take a picture and upload it as “free for personal and commercial use” but that does NOT mean it is suitable for the latter.

So here’s what you need to look for in a photo to stay out of trouble…

3.1 Model releases

Is there a clearly identifiable person in the photo? If so, you need to make sure you have their consent to use it and therefore you need a model release.

If there are multiple identifiable people in a photo, then you need model releases for all of them.

If there is a person in the photograph but is not clearly identifiable and is not the main subject of the photo, then you do not need a model release.


You need to be VERY careful when determining whether or not a person is “identifiable”.

A person can often be recognized even from the back. A tattoo, a silhouette, a location, a birthmark or a combination of different elements – all can help identify a person.

For example, you would need a model release to use EITHER of the following two photos:

African american man to the left and Asian woman with tattoo to the right
Both persons are identifiable thus model releases need to be collected for either photo to be used commercially.

The woman’s face is only partially cut off from the picture but even if we couldn’t see her face at all, the tattoo on her arm would probably be more than enough for some people to recognize who she is and therefore, a model release is needed.

That is not the case with a photo like this one:

A free photo of a man traveling
An example photo where a model release is not needed.

The person in this photo is hard to identify which makes the above photo safe to use for commercial projects without having to have a model release.

As you can see, there is a good amount of subjectivity in play.

Model releases are also needed for photos of children but in this case, it is a parent or a legal guardian signing the release.

3.2 Property releases

People own so many things: businesses, houses, apartments, cars, works of art, pets, you name it. If a photo is taken on private property or features private property, then a property release is needed to use the photo commercially.

Example of an image featuring a dog that doesn't require a property release
This is a street pup. Thus, a property release is not required.

There are two things that are undeniably true about the above photo:

  1. That is a cute puppy
  2. You do not need to look for a property release because it is a picture of a street dog without an owner

But if this pup was lucky enough to have an owner, the photographer would have to have secured a property release (signed by the puppy’s owner) in order for you to download and use the photo commercially.

The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) states that they have never seen a statute or legal case that requires a property release. However, they do recommend photographers getting property releases because the fact is there is legal ground to base a lawsuit on for the lack thereof.

Let’s say you find a free photo of a house that belongs to me and that the photographer who took it never bothered obtaining a property release.

Now you want to use the picture of my house to create flyers that include a slogan that I find offensive.

I happen to see those flyers and I go ahead and sue you because I do not want to be associated with that slogan of yours. I would argue that my reputation has been damaged because many people saw the ad, recognized my house, and thought I was endorsing you. Not to mention you made money by using a picture of my property without permission.

This may sound far-fetched but it can theoretically happen.

Property releases also need to be secured if a photo is taken on privately held property like stadiums, airports, museum interiors, art galleries, shopping malls, movie theaters, aquariums, resorts, amusement parks, zoo parks etc.

The same holds true for spaces hosting events like airshows, fashion shows, concerts, and more.

Hopefully, you’ve sorted property releases by now and it is time for the next question…

4. Are there any copyright issues?

The photo itself has a copyright but photographers give up on that when they upload their image for distribution under CC0. But when deciding on whether you should use any photo, it is important that you look for elements within the photo itself that could lead to copyright infringement.

Woman laying in bed, reading a book
Woman reading a book that cannot be identified

In the above-shown photo, can you tell which book this woman is reading?

The answer is no and that is exactly how it should be. You want to steer clear of free photos with identifiable intellectual property such as books and posters on the wall.

With copyright out of the way, you’re ready to move on to the fifth and last question:

5. Are there items in the photo protected by trademark law?

A trademark is a unique and distinctive mark used to distinguish the products of one party from those of others. Companies take their trademarks very seriously – you should under no circumstances use a free photo that contains trademarked material within it.

Among other things, you can be accused of trying to making it seem like they’re endorsing your product or service.

See to it that branding is removed from any items present in the photo.

Here are a few examples of free photos that could potentially get you into serious trouble if you were to use them commercially (if there are no releases on file):

Example 1
Example 2
Example 3

But company logos aren’t the only trademarks you should be aware of.

Many buildings are protected by trademark law as well. Here are just some of them:

  • The Chrysler Building
  • The NY Stock Exchange
  • The Transamerica Pyramid
  • The Eiffel Tower (its lightning design)

What this means is that you can’t download a photo of the Chrysler Building and use it in an advertisement. Again, the main problem is that doing so would make it seem like you are endorsed by the Chrysler Building and that is a big no-no!

Wrapping it all up

Free stock photo sites have taken the Internet by storm. Whether that’s generally a good or a bad thing is debatable in my humble opinion. But that is another story.

We can all agree that they are, indeed, a major convenience for a lot of people.

But free stock photos can just as easily become a major inconvenience and get you into trouble if you do not know what you’re doing.

What about you?

Were you aware of these (potential) issues with free stock photos when it comes to commercial use?

Let me know in the comments below!

67 thoughts on “How To Avoid A Lawsuit When Using Free Stock Photos”

  1. Thank you so much for this information. As interesting as this is, I found your page because a “designer” sold me some images that I thought she created until I followed my gut to check them out. Only then did I realize they were not hers. Thankfully, the platform refunded my money, but it reset my business and efforts to ground zero. I’m sure that is better than being sued.

  2. Thanks for this info. We were just discussing this issue in one of our groups and people were wanting to know the best way to go about using the pictures on places like Unsplash and Pixabay. I’ll be sure to share this with them.

  3. That is a lot to think about. Makes me want to quit using pictures. Sounds like even some of my own photos could be suspect.

  4. Sue Van Oosterom

    What if I want to paint a picture I found on Pixabay..not exactly but say, use the boat and change the background……if not, what is the whole point of offerring up these free images.

    1. Hello,

      If you just want to paint the photo, then the above doesn’t apply to you. If you want to sell your painting or otherwise use it commercially, then you may want to take a closer look at the photo itself and the license it comes with.

      For example, if there are identifiable people in the photo, then you should make sure there is a model release on file (one for every identifiable person). This also applies to property, trademarks (like a brand logo), some buildings.

      If it is a generic photo of a boat, you should be good to use it commercially anyway (assuming the license allows it, which is most likely the case on Pixabay and similar sites).

      1. Hello, I have a similar question. I found a photo I like (specifically, it’s a silhouette of a person emerging from blue smoke). A friend of mine is an artist and a graphic designer and he agreed to draw something similar for me (probably in different color or shape, but the same theme). Would that be an issue? Thank you


  5. Thank you for this article! I have one question, and I hope you can help – can I use Unsplash photos in online ads? (For example Facebook ads). Of course, I’m having in mind all the points you mentioned. “Commercial use” is quite a general term.

    1. Hello Paulina,

      You most certainly can! Using Unsplash photos in online ads constitutes commercial use without a doubt so you will want to carefully select your photos – like discussed in the article. Unsplash has an amazing collection that keeps growing by the day – I’m sure you will find a photo that is both suitable for your needs and safe to use!

    1. Hello Stacey,

      That is a good question. Non-profit educational use is distinct from commercial use but commercial use could still occur in a non-profit setting. Maybe you use an image in a calendar you sell as a fundraiser or maybe you happen to use it during another event that could be considered commercial in nature.

      With that being said, I would still be careful when selecting images. There is a huge selection of free resources out there which makes it quite easy to avoid those images that are on “thin ice” when it comes to copyright and trademark law.

  6. Cool article George. Have a question!

    I have an investor who doesn’t want to use pexels, upslash or Creative Commons for images on our site He also doesn’t want to use the federal governments images from groups like NASA that are public domain. He also doesn’t seem willing to support us using articles where we take photos from movies or shows and talk about that as part of a review or commentary. And the list goes on… No trust for images even when people agree to sign a doc giving rights claiming we don’t know for sure who took it.

    I’m looking at this and we aren’t using images on these sites to sell products, are not using them for our actual site and not really using them for much. We just want featured images for articles in our blog to grow. And I have seen countless sites and written for some where they really don’t care. They let me use pixabay, Pexels and more. He’s afraid we will use them and get $150,000 lawsuits just popping up.

    What are your thoughts? Have you ever actually seen lawsuits like that where anyone lost over say $10,000 on a photo? Do you trust pixabay and pexels for blog article photos? Do you trust the ability to take photos from movies or shows and use them as commentary?

    Thank you and look forward to your answer.



    1. Hi Charles,

      Great domain name you got there! Interesting site, too.

      Most of the images on sites like Pexels, Pixabay, Unsplash, etc, are perfectly safe to use. I wrote this article for those indeed rare cases that they aren’t. Yes, I personally do trust these sites for finding featured images for blog posts – just not blindly. Each image I find goes through a checklist to determine whether it is safe to use or not and how likely it is to get me into trouble.

      It takes some getting used to but it becomes second nature after a while. Frankly, it sounds like you are being careful enough already!

      I myself avoid using images of identifiable people or property unless I cannot find a similar photo with non-identifiable people/property. And if I have to do the former (which I typically avoid), I will make absolutely sure there is a model/property release on file.

      I’m not personally aware of a lawsuit where someone’s lost over $10,000 but I am aware of one lawsuit for $8,000 over a featured image on a blog post. The number of people who read the blog post didn’t matter (it was a low three-digit number and the publisher could obviously prove it).

      Works created by the U.S federal government and any of its agencies (such as NASA) are copyright-free.

      And in regards to using photos from movies/shows as commentary, I would say you are covered by the “Fair Use” doctrine if you are writing a review, criticising, parody the film/show, or writing a caption that makes a parallel with real life, or something in those lines. Note that most film studios release professionally taken screenshots for promotional purposes – perhaps you could use those in some cases.

      Copyright and fair use can be subjective so if you are unsure about how legal (or illegal) your use is, consult an attorney. Especially if you are dealing with a worried investor!

      I hope this helps!

  7. Layton R. Turner

    This is a great article! Question. If you download a photograph that allows free commercial use license, if there is a trademark/copyright issue on the original photo, but you modify it so the logo/word/etc. aren’t identifiable, would that work?

    1. Hello Layton,

      Yes, that would work. For example, if you have a photo of a woman jogging and her shoes have an identifiable logo of a sportswear brand on them, you could use photo editing software to remove the logo from the shoes.

  8. I’m using images with people shot from behind at a far distance (from Pexels) where you cannot tell who they are at all. It’s possible to tell their hair-style but that’s it… (No tattoos). Is it safe to use images like these in a promo video for commercial purposes?

    1. Hello Will,

      It sounds like the people in the images you are using cannot be identified which means the images are safe to use for commercial purposes. You will also want to make sure there are no identifiable brand logos and other identifiable objects that are copyrighted (books, posters on the wall, etc).

      Last but not least, keep in mind that while you can use the images commercially (say for a promo video), you typically can’t sell or redistribute the images themselves. And there are also restrictions when it comes to using images on physical products for sale (you will have to modify them first).

  9. Hello,
    great article!
    I have a question. If I want to download a photo from one of these websites, put my logo on it and:
    1) Use it for IG posts;
    2) Use it for e-commerce shop design.
    Can I do it?
    In other words, can you put your own logo on photos?
    Thank you in advance.

    1. George Floros

      Yes, you can typically do that subject to the ToS of each website you are downloading from. Everything mentioned in the article still applies, of course.

  10. Shahridzuan Azali

    Hi. Thank you for your article. I’ve been having these questions. Is it okay for me to use text, photos, and design from the sites you mentioned and also Canva for my blog and Pinterest? I need nice photos for my blog and I’m planning to promote my posts on Pinterest. The latter would require me to design poster-like photos using Canva images and fonts. I’m worried about getting sued though. Thank you for your guidance.

    1. Hello,
      Generally speaking, it is safe to use images from free stock photo sites (that includes the collection Canva has). However, just like I mentioned in the article, you want to be very careful with photos featuring identifiable people, places, brand logos, etc. No free stock photo site can guarantee the author (the uploader) has the appropriate releases on file so you have to do that instead and do your own diligent research. Or just stay away from photos that are on thin ice or just flat out dangerous to use and choose more generic ones, with non-identifiable people or property.

  11. Good Afternoon. Having been in the advertising and graphic design business since 1995, it doesn’t take long for the many professional photographers to inform you of their rights as well as the rights of each person, logo owners, etc. Since then and most recently, I visited the government copyright website. There is no scarcity of information we all should know. On a photo trip to San Francisco back in 2004, I made sure most street shots that contained people and even notable buildings had to be partially obscured, or in the case of the Transamerica Pyramid, was less than 30% of the entire photo. Enough about me.

    This article generated by George Floros is one of the clearest and most understandable summaries of the intricacies of copyright licensing I have read to date. Thank You

  12. Hi, I was so much concerned about this issue and I am very thankful to you for describing exactly about how to do Due diligence for public domain images. I was to ask a question but, everything is covered in the comments section.
    Thank you,

  13. Hi, Great and clear information, very appreciated! I had put one photo on my travel website that was of a very icon area of Greece and it stated it was free for commercial use on the original website. Now I have a German attorney emailing me with threats of a lawsuit if I don’t sign a cease and desist letter and pay him $6,000 for “losses”. How do you recommend handling this? I’m not even sure it is legitimate but with Covid creating such huge business losses I really can’t afford to hire an attorney if it is not necessary. Any advice?

    1. Hello and thank you for your comment and your kind words. I’m very sorry this happened to you.

      That’s the kind of situation my article is trying to warn about. The site you got the image from may have stated that the image was free for commercial use but it could be the case that the uploader was not the original photographer – that’s just one way you can get into this sort of trouble. That is why it is of great importance to track down the source of the image you want to use.

      You clearly need to make sure you are dealing with a legitimate threat of a lawsuit here. I would indeed recommend hiring an attorney to handle this case for you.

  14. Hello
    If I want to use photos or vectors from pixabay to use on products to sell, do I have to alter them before using them? This is assuming it passes through all the checks you mention above. I am looking to use animals and monsters for the most part. If I do have to alter them, how much so? Can I just remove the background or add sunglasses for example?
    Thank you!

    1. Hello Lisa,
      Here is a link to the Pixabay license: (it’s no longer a CC0 license even though it is based on CC0).
      As you can see, you need to alter Pixabay-hosted images in order to be able to use them on physical products. Unfortunately, how much you need to alter them is not crystal clear. It would be best if you reach out to someone from Pixabay in that regard.

  15. Hello I would like to know if i can download images from unsplash and use them on a calendar for sale. e.g. A calendar of dogs or cats or landscapes, etc?

    1. Hello,

      While you can use them on a calendar for sale, you still need to be careful with the images that you download and use. Landscape images are typically of no concern though you still need to make sure you have the right to use them commercially in a product that is for sale.

      Images of dogs and cats are on thin ice. Pets are considered property and there are laws protecting property. If a photographer takes a picture of my pet and uploads it without me knowing (and having signed a release), I have a right to come after you if you download and use that image on your calendar. Images of street dogs and cats do not have that problem obviously.

      I hope this helps!

  16. Hello! Thanks for the advice in the article.

    I have a question about selling pdfs with vectors / images from Pixabay. I want to make some pdfs available to subscribers on my website. Am I allowed to use their images for that purpose? I have added value to the constent as it is part of a lesson plan for teaching.

    Thank you!

    1. Hello,

      Based on your description, I would say that you won’t run into any issues as long as you make sure that you thoroughly check each image that you use, as described in this article.

  17. Hey, thank you this is so helpful! I have one question though, if I were to take an image from Pexels say of an image of a coffee cup, alter the image in photoshop i.e remove the background and animate or make it into a silhouette or line drawing and use on my prints to sell, can I use them commercially like this?

    1. Hello,

      Yes, that doesn’t sound like breaking the rules. As long as the image that you’re using (e.g the coffee cup) does not have a logo of a known brand on it or maybe a piece of art (like a painting) that could be subject to copyright.

  18. Please suggest sites from where I can obtain paid rights (at low cost) for using photos including those of identifiable people. I need to use it in my website and social media posts and ads. Is it safe to use images purchased from istock?

    1. Paid stock photo sites are safe to use because they require model releases in order to accept images into their platform. Be sure to check each site’s license in regards to limitations for commercial use!

  19. When it comes to buildings, is the issue simply the existence of identifiable trademarks or are the shapes of some buildings also a problem? I downloaded a photo from Pixabay for use in an art piece. Granted, it’s been edited to the point where anything in the picture is probably unrecognizable now, but even beforehand, there were no identifiable logos or any such thing in the picture. However, there is a rather prominent looking building that, while I don’t think anyone would recognize after intense editing (it’s basically just a big rectangle), it is a rather large focal point of the picture. Perhaps if I edited it further to make sure it looks as generic as possible, it would be safer? Would this be a problem?

    Thank you in advance for your response.

    1. Hello Tara,
      I would have to say the shape or silhouette can also be an issue if the building is clearly and beyond any doubt identifiable. If you edit it heavily (to the point of it no longer being identifiable) then you are safer but still not entirely safe.

  20. Hi! This is the most clarifying article about the use images. Just like someone mentioned before, it’s such a mine field I almost feel like not using images at all. But I do need them.

    I have a collection of gate images taken on random streets. It’s just the gate, no other property details. Would I run into any trouble using them?

    1. Hello Anne,

      Glad you found the article useful! I’ll make an attempt to answer your question as best as I can and to the best of my knowledge but keep in mind these matters are complicated and the (potential) claims made against you can vary from country to country, even from state to state (if you are based in the United States). If you are serious about commercial use, you should seek the advice of an attorney.

      My personal opinion is you could still run into trouble if you use those images commercially provided the gate is part of the property. That does not necessarily mean you would indeed face a lawsuit nor does it mean you would necessarily lose the legal fight if you did.

      Technically, and like already mentioned, there is ground for a lawsuit BUT:

      According to 17 USC 120, you have to the right to take exterior photos of buildings or homes when they are ordinarily visible from a public place. There was a case of a homeowner suing HSBC Bank USA for using a picture of his property to advertise mortgages. He did so under not one, not two, not three, but SEVEN theories of law. The case was dismissed.

      You can read the court’s decision here:

      Here’s another case you may find interesting:

      Taking photos inside property is a different story of course because if you don’t have a license, you can also be accused of trespassing. Plus, you could be taking photos of property that may not be visible from a public space.

      But again, regardless of all that, I personally consider it dangerous to not secure location agreements or property releases for your defence, should it ever come to that. For many reasons, not necessarily related to copyright per se.

      I hope this helps!

  21. Hi,
    Thanks for the wealth of information that you have provided.
    I just wanted to know if I can use the generic photos on sites like pixabay/pexels for painting? What if a painting is produced by stitching a few photos ? Does it still need model/property release?


    1. Hello Kus,

      If you intend to sell said paintings, then the same rules should still apply for the most part. But if your use is personal, then you are in the clear.

  22. My question is about property and copyright license. I have seen tons of cityscape photos that have recognizable structures; however, unless it is as blatantly identifiable ad the Eiffel tower, I wouldn’t know if it was a copyrighted structure or not (for that matter, I didn’t know that the Eiffel Tower was, either). What suggestions do you have to successfully avoid problems in this area?

    1. Hello,

      While every situation is different (which is why you typically want to speak with an attorney for your specific use case), to the best of my knowledge, cityscape photos are not an issue since no one building is the focus / main point of interest in the photograph. That’s quite different from using a close up photo of the Eiffel Tower (for example) for commercial purposes.

  23. Thank you for the valuable article. This subject is quite an intricate maze. My question has to do with using images on the LIbrary Of Congress site. When they say, ” No known restrictions” for an image, and it was published before 1925 or was part of a governmental project, is that a safe bet? How about if there are people in the picture? Or dogs?

    1. Hi Carla,

      Thank you for your kind words!

      I would say that’s a very safe bet, yes. And since we are talking about images published before 1925, you should be safe even if there are people or dogs in the picture(s). Also note that works created by the U.S federal government are copyright-free.

  24. Very useful information, thanks..
    One particular thing you didn’t mention is the use of art vectors/illustrations from Pixabay for my own logo creation. Is it allowed?
    I guess that logo isn’t considered as a regular commercial ad so should I need to ask the designer for his consent to use the vector for my logo?
    Buy vector use I mean not using one specific vector for the entire logo but rather integrating several free vectors into new creation.. my logo..
    Is it legally allowed?

    1. Hello Shachar,

      Pixabay’s applies to all content on their platform – that includes vector illustrations. According to their license you can use their content for commercial purposes unless otherwise specified. So do pay attention to license terms for each individual file you download.

      A logo will almost certainly be considered commercial use because you are very likely to use it on business cards, your website, merchandise, ads you may eventually want to run for your business, etc.

      Provided this is your logo we are talking about – a very important asset for every business – I would recommend reaching out to the artist to make sure that commercial use is allowed even if that’s already being mentioned on the download page. Just to make sure.

      Outside of licensing, you may want to consider some other variables. Free vectors are typically downloaded very often which means your logo will not be as unique as you may have wanted it to be. This is also true for premium stock graphics (like those sold on this very website for example) but quite less so. And, if you use stock vectors (free or premium), you will not ever be able to trademark your logo because the design assets you used to make it can also be used by other people for similar purposes.

      I hope this information helps you!

  25. Thanks for the article.
    I have a question, I sell printables and I use pictures on Pexels, edited the image I need, cut it out, then put on the design, typically I use flowers, butterflies, ocean etc. I don\t reanimate them – I just mix them together to make a great design. Then I sell them. Is there going to be a problem with it?

    1. Hello Mike,

      First of all, everything that we discussed in this article still applies. Double-check that the images you download can be used commercially. Then, you’ll want to pay attention to the license of the image(s) you are downloading. If the content is under the “Pexels License” then you shouldn’t run into any problems doing what you describe. See this page for details (section 5.5):

  26. A great article.
    Is this applicable to patents too? Let’s say I made a book that used images of a computer CPU and motherboard with no/removed/blurred logos – would that give legal grounds to the companies to sue me?
    As for what you mentioned about trademarks, can you technically just blur them or completely remove them using a photo editing application? If we get a laptop as an example, each letter on the laptop’s keyboard is technically copyrighted because a font was used. Is that correct? Also, the general layout and design can have some copyright?

    1. Hello,

      You should be fine if you were to remove logos from the picture of a motherboard or a CPU. You could blur them instead but I would argue that’s not as safe – it would depend on the end-result.

      As far as your laptop example is concerned, I personally wouldn’t worry about the keyboard but I would remove logos to be on the safe side. As I’m sure you have noticed, movies and TV shows will more often than not remove logos from real-world items. It’s a controversial practice and some argue it doesn’t make any sense. Everyone can tell an Apple computer when they see one – removing the logo isn’t going to make the item non-identifiable. There are even legal arguments against “Greeking” but that’s a lengthy discussion.

      My personal opinion is to play it safe and remove logos. Do not just blur them out – remove them.

  27. Great article, George!
    Is it OK to use USPS stamp images to upload to unsplash, iStock, Getty Images, pixabay, etc?
    Some say that postmarked postage stamps are exempt from copyright, because they are a collectible artifact, not the original exact design image.
    How about postcards, or maxicards created with stamp+postmark+postcard? Derivative work.
    Sales listings for such philatelic material is for commercial use, right?
    The Internet is full of images of postage stamps, including for sale.
    Uploading (such as on Unsplash, or on Zazzle, for designing items) a postcard image of the Chrysler building is a copyright violation? I saw maxicards with the Chrysler building posted in various places. Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Dorin!

      So all works created by the US government are not subject to copyright and are on the public domain. However, this only applies to USPS stamps printed before 1971. You can read more about that here: [ page 83 – 313.6(C)(1) ]

      and here: [ page 60 ]

      The bottom line is the USPS can…

      “use the copyright law to prevent the reproduction of postage stamp designs for private or commercial non-postal services.”

      Postmarked stamps could be seen as collectible artifacts but I feel like that is not a surefire approach should USPS decide to enforce their copyright. If you are serious about commercial use using USPS stamps (even postmarked or on postcards / maxicards), I think you seek legal counseling given the above.

      Yes, sales listings for such material is commercial use (even if you were a non-profit organization). And yes, you are right the Internet is full of images of USPS stamps (for sale). Some of them may be in the clear copyright-wise (if it’s an old stamp, for example) and some of them are likely… not. It’s no surprise; you can find a ton of material for sale that violates not just copyright but trademark laws as well. Much of that is on reputable marketplaces that pass on the responsibility to the sellers, should the copyright holders decide to take action. I hope that answers your question about maxicards featuring the Chrysler building. If you can tell it’s the Chrysler building, that’s a copyright violation.

      Copyright owners don’t all act the same way. Some are known to be more aggressive than others and some never take action.

      I hope this helps!

      1. Thank you, George!
        You said 1971, from the Reorganization Act, but AFAIAC the cutoff date is Jan 1, 1978 for copyright of USPS stamps.
        One could design and sell T-shirts with a 1977 USPS stamp image, for example. No?
        One could upload a (pre-1978 only?) USPS stamp image to a site like unsplash, without being paid for uploading it. But later on, unsplash might give downloaders of it the option to pay somehow the uploader (“buy coffee”, etc.).
        Is that OK?

  28. Hi, I want to use the photograph of a God’s idol from Pexel. I don’t think any release is required for that, right? And I would use that image in a poster design. The poster will have a print run of 10000. Will that be okay?

    1. Hi Reema,

      It is possible the – photographed – work of art itself is copyrighted (the idol). You have to make sure that it is not before considering using the photo. And then you have to make sure the photo itself is free to use for commercial purposes. Since it is on Pexels, that may very well be the case. But please make sure that you read their license, here:

      Paragraph 5.5 may be the most relevant in your case.

      I am not aware of any limits on how many copies you can print but it looks like you now need to meaningfully modify the image in order to use it for prints / physical products.

      And again, make sure that the work of art depicted is not copyrighted!

    1. Hello Paul,

      It depends on the image. You won’t have trouble with most images offered on Pixabay but you may run into issues with some, as described in the article. If you stay away from those, you should be good.

  29. I always get confused when it comes to altering an image. Does that mean I can use the image put some words around it and sell it on a tshirt? I am trying to do a fundraiser shirt at the moment.
    thank you in advance! I have tried to research this but have found a lack of examples — maybe I am not wording my research question correctly?

    1. Hello,

      You are right in that there aren’t many examples to detail what “altering” means. That would vary from site to site, so it’d be best if you reach out directly to the site that’s hosting the image you want to use, describe what changes you are going to make, and see if that qualifies as enough “altering” in order to use the image commercially (assuming such use is allowed in the first place).

  30. This information should really be shared far wider – most designers are not interested in violating anyone’s copyright but might happen without knowing it. So thank you to be part of sharing this.

    Question: If I buy pictures from, say, Shutterstock, Adobe stock, etc “paid for” libraries and there’s a model featured, or the Eiffel tower (there are loads of stuff like this here already), do I still need to be worried and make all the research before I use the pictures on my website or in a client’s graphic work?

    1. Hello Claus,

      Thank you for your kind words!

      You typically don’t have to worry when purchasing stock photos under a commercial-use license. If a contributor uploads a photo that requires a model or a property release and fails to provide such releases, the photos will be rejected or they will be listed for editorial use only.

      For the Eiffel tower specifically, keep in mind shots of the building during daytime are okay for editorial and commercial use. Photos of the Eiffel’s tower lighting, however, are not.

  31. Hi George,

    This is a very interesting and complete article I just stumbled upon. However, I’m still confused about my project: I would like to use abstract images from Unsplash or other websites as background images where I will then add my lettering on top of it and sell them as postcards. Am I allowed to do that? I don’t want to find myself in trouble.

    1. Hi Bélinda,

      With abstract images, you typically don’t have to worry about releases. Since you specifically mentioned Unsplash, they have been limiting the use of their photos for commercial purposes, especially in items for resale (such as postcards). You have to “meaningfully” update, modify, or “otherwise incorporate new creative elements”. I know that is not specific enough, and that is why I recommend reaching out to the artist. Ask their permission and, at the very least, document their reply (e.g never delete their reply from your email client just to have a record of the conversation).

      Here’s a link from Unsplash, discussing using their photos in items for resale:

      I hope this helps!

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