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Why I Don't Use Free Stock Photo Sites for Books

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

Two things I don't do well: drawing and photography. I try. Really, I do. And what I can do is serviceable for most self-publishing use.

But when I look at all the amazing images and illustrations on stock art sites, I realize that it's better that I stick to writing words instead of trying to create a picture that's worth a thousand words. I am so grateful that talented artists, photographers, and curators make their work available for licensing to folks like me, even though, at times, it can be a bit of a financial investment.

With the cost of some of these images, it's tempting to click on over to the free stock photo sites, which also have some amazing offerings. So why spend on images if you can use them for free? Here's why.

The "Free" Fall

I used to really love one particular "public domain" art and photography site. Some of the work there was truly incredible and, incredibly, free to use (or so the site said).

One day, I was looking for a particular type of image for a project. I found one that was perfect and decided to do a little digging to see who the originator of the image was for attribution. I clicked on the "visit website" link and was directed to yet another "public domain, free to use" image site. I clicked on the website for the image on that secondary site and was directed to yet another "public domain, free to use" image site.

I wondered how far down this trail went. Had these images been stolen? I actually could not even verify the original source of the image AND whether it had royalty-free or Creative Commons public domain (CC0) status. This caused me to question how the site was policing the materials it offered.

Here's where it gets even more confusing and scary. I looked at the free stock photo site's terms of service. The site disclaimed all responsibility for the ownership, royalty-free, or public domain status of any image available. At the same time, the site said you could use their images for any purpose, including commercial use. Even worse, it made you, the user, responsible for verifying the status of any image, as well as verifying if the proper model and property releases had been obtained.

What? Yikes! Basically, the site was saying, "Go ahead, use this stuff, and good luck if you get sued for improper image use."

After seeing that, I refuse to use any free stock photo sites. Period.

For many years now, I have used one very popular paid stock photo site that offers quality images for reasonable prices PLUS a legal guarantee that offers a bit of financial assistance to help defend you in the event that your proper use of one of their images is legally challenged.

Regardless of whether you continue to use free stock photo sites you trust or not, you do need to understand what royalty-free means.

Royalty-free does not mean copyright-free. The copyright to any image belongs to the original creator or copyright owner. Free or even paid stock photo sites merely grant you a "license" to use that image without paying a fee (royalty) to the copyrighted image creator or owner.

Some artists and photographers use these stock sites to get their work into public view, which, they hope, will result in paid work. Some of these folks can be very successful in this arena and may create stock images exclusively.

Licensing of stock photos and images is an investment. Know what you're "buying"... even if it's offered for free.

— Heidi Thorne

The "Commercial" Question

This may surprise you. Even if you properly license an image from a stock site, whether free or paid, you may not be able to use it in your self-published book. A book is considered a commercial venture, and there may be limitations or outright prohibitions on using these images for that type of project.

For example, one site I've used allows you to use their images for some specifically defined commercial purposes, up to a certain number of physically printed copies. After that point, an extended license agreement needs to be purchased. But for electronic use (such as websites), there is no limit to the number of views.

Carefully read the terms of service (TOS) and licensing agreement for any site to verify limitations to using their images and how they protect both your rights and the rights of the image owners and/or creators.

Always Read and Keep a Copy of the TOS and Licensing Agreement

Though it is tedious, read through the TOS and licensing agreement for any stock photo site you use, free or paid. Make sure you understand what you're agreeing to when you license these photos or illustrations. If you don't understand, seek legal assistance to help you sort it out. And keep a copy of both the TOS and licensing agreements somewhere in your permanent archive for future reference.

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Question All "Public Domain" Claims

The term "public domain" is often used rather loosely when it comes to images. As well, many people incorrectly believe that "public domain" means "on the Internet." Nothing could be farther from the truth! In fact, verifying public domain status for images can often be a very tedious task and may even require legal assistance and research to confirm. This is even further complicated by the practice of free stock photo sites that allow users to upload images with little or no oversight and then claim they are "public domain."

There are artists that do contribute their work under a Creative Commons license (usually CC0 license) so the public can use their images and other work for free with some exceptions. Visit for more information. And if you don't understand what you are entitled to do with these works, verify your rights or don't use them!

Even if not required by the terms of service or licensing agreement, I like to give attribution to both the stock site and the artist whenever possible, especially online. So I keep a spreadsheet of image data that includes links to where the original was located and licensed from, the artist's name and any other data to help me locate it online and in my archive.

Take Your Own Photos, But Obtain Necessary Model and Property Releases

Some of you might be thinking, "Well, I'll skip all this licensing hassle and mumbo-jumbo and take my own pictures." Good for you! But, be VERY careful that you obtain permission to take photos of other people or their property. These permissions are usually called "model releases" for people and "property releases" for buildings, places, and objects. You might be shocked at some of the places and things that require you to obtain permission—even pay a fee—to include them in your photos.

Also, you may be completely prohibited from using images of certain people and property in your commercially available books! This actually can get very messy from a legal standpoint. So verify what permissions (if any) will be required BEFORE you shoot your photo subjects. Seek legal advice for procedures to follow for securing necessary model and property releases.

Beware of Using "For Editorial Use Only" Images

Stock photo sites, whether free or paid, often include "for editorial use only" images. That means they can only be used for editorial purposes (for example, news reports may be a permitted use), but not for commercial purposes such as books. Why? Because they usually feature famous people, places, property, things, or brand names whose images may be protected by a variety of laws and regulations. Also, the use of these identifiable subjects could suggest an endorsement or affiliation relationship that does not exist. You are usually prohibited from using these images in your self-published books!

Make Sure Any Subcontractors or Designers Follow the Rules on Proper Image Use

When hiring graphic designers, marketing or social media consultants, and virtual assistants, be very clear about the rules to follow regarding proper image use. Always retain final approval on all images used, how they are used, and log licensing details for each image used.

Refer to your stock photo site's terms of service and licensing agreement for rules on client and/or subcontractor use of licensed images. For example, you may have an account with a stock site that, under their TOS, may allow you to share an image with your designer for specific projects. However, your designer will likely be prohibited from using that image in any projects that are not for you. Rules vary. So always verify what's permitted!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on May 08, 2016:

Thanks for the support, FlourishAnyway! Have a Happy Mothers Day Weekend!

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 07, 2016:

Everyone who epublishes should read this!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on March 13, 2016:

Glad you enjoyed it, Larry! Have a terrific week ahead!

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on March 12, 2016:

Great read.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 16, 2016:

Hi Jo! Yes, even though you probably have used a reputable site, it's good to dig into the terms to make sure you're following guidelines and what they offer you. Photos truly do enhance our work online. And, like you, I'm no pro when it comes to drawing and photography. Glad there's folks who are good at it. Thanks for stopping by and chiming in! Have a great day!

Jo Miller from Tennessee on February 16, 2016:

Thanks for this valuable information. I sometimes use one of the more reputable photo sites, but will double check that. There was a really good article on Hubpages previously about how to use this site safely that I referred to. The photos definitely enhance an article. I sometimes use my own photos but they are not very good. That's not my forte either.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 14, 2016:

Hi purl3agony! I'm with you on that! In fact it was that "it is REALLY free" question that made me look deeper into the issue. And, yes, if you're a restaurant, hire a great food photographer to take pics of YOUR dishes. We wanna see what we're ordering.

Thanks for chiming in. Hope you're having a delightful Valentine's Day Weekend!

Donna Herron from USA on February 14, 2016:

Very helpful, Heidi! I've looked at using some free stock photos for some of my general articles, but always got lost in whether it was really "free". I also wonder whether your article/brochure/whatever loses some credibility when you use general photos that may appear on other websites or in other publications. As a simple example, I'm always leery of restaurants that use stock photos of food instead of taking photos of their own menu items.

Thanks for another great hub!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 14, 2016:

Hi AliciaC! I, too, only use reputable sites for photos and illustrations. And it does pay to check out the TOS and licensing agreements from time to time to see if things have changed for some sites. Glad you found it helpful. Thank you for stopping by on this Happy Valentine's Day Weekend!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 13, 2016:

This is another very useful hub that is also important, Heidi. Thank you for the reminder to check the TOS and Licensing Agreement of a photo site carefully. I only use well known public domain sites to obtain photos, but after reading your article I'm going to investigate them carefully.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 13, 2016:

Thanks for the kind comment, lambservant! Glad you found it helpful. Have a great weekend!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on February 13, 2016:

Well, billybuc, you and I will have to stick to writing words, eh? We're just differently gifted. :) Happy Valentine's Day Weekend to you, too! (It was 4 degrees this AM.)

Lori Colbo from United States on February 13, 2016:

Very informative and helpful.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on February 13, 2016:

Well, first of all, I can't draw worth a lick, so that option is gone for me. Having read this article, that option is gone for me. That pretty much leaves me with begging friends to do it because I don't have the money to pay someone. Blah, blah, blah....I'm babbling now. Have a great weekend and stay warm!!!!!

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