6 tricks for legal use of Google images

6 tricks for legal use of Google images

Google Images is an effective tool for finding the perfect image for use in presentations, documents and on social media. But before using images found through Google, you need to consider copyright law.


How many times have you used Google or another search engine and found the perfect image, illustration or photograph? Or maybe a map, table or infographic?

As tempting as it is to copy and paste that image or photograph on your website, in your e-book or elsewhere – and perhaps even adapt and modify it for your own purposes – you need to consider copyright law first.

Google …

  • It is a search engine that helps you locate content such as images, photos and other content
  • It directs you to images and photos and other online content based on your search criteria
  • It is not a certified collection of public domain or copyright free works

Once you’ve found the perfect image or photo, you need to treat it (from a copyright point of view) like any other content you find online. This means doing a copyright analysis before using the image.

You may find it hard to convince others in your workplace that finding an image via a Google search doesn’t necessarily mean it’s free to use under all circumstances without obtaining copyright clearance. Our eTutorial 21 Virtual Ways to Raise Copyright Awareness in Your Library or Organization can help you creatively educate others about the legal use of Google images.

In recent years, Google has implemented initiatives that make it easier to find credit, creator, and copyright information, as well as identify licensed images in image searches. This information is available if the publisher or creator provides it in the image metadata. For more information, see their blog post Image Rights Metadata in Google Images and the IPTC article Google’s “Licensed Images” feature is now active.

To ensure that you are using Google images legally, you should assume that all images online are copyrighted. Then do your research. Start with these two steps:

  1. Make the effort to determine if the image is copyrighted
  2. If it’s copyrighted and no license is attached, you need to get permission first to use it

If you’re lucky, the copyright owner’s name will be on the image with a link to contact him and ask for permission. And hopefully the copyright owner will respond promptly. But this best scenario won’t always be your scenario.

It may take time, effort and creativity in your research to determine and investigate the copyright status of a work.

In some circumstances, your research will reveal that your use of the image does not require permission. For example, public domain images and photographs do not require permission.


Is there a Creative Commons (CC) license attached to the image or photograph you wish to use? In that case, you must be aware that:

  • There are various CC licenses that allow you to use an image or photograph (or other online content) without first obtaining permission.
  • You have to read that license to see what it allows. You may be able to just use the image as it is or maybe you can edit it. Alternatively, you may be able to use it for non-commercial purposes only. All CC licenses require you to acknowledge the owner of the image.

Another thing to look for is any specific terms of use written on the site where you find the job. Terms can be specific and need to be followed. For example, the terms may indicate that you can use the image for non-commercial or educational purposes. (Unfortunately, terms don’t usually define non-commercial or educational purposes, so you’ll need to make that judgment.)


When using images you find online (or elsewhere), remember the following points for legal use of Google Images:

  • Determining whether an image, photograph, or other content is copyrighted or not can take some time. Start your search as soon as possible, as soon as you decide you want to use a certain image or photograph.
  • Act on the facts. Don’t just think that an “old” photo is free to take or an image without a copyright symbol or notice is always free to use.
  • If you don’t see permission clearly marked on an image or photograph, you need to investigate its copyright status.


Never use an image, illustration or photograph without first researching to determine its copyright status. Not everyone realizes that online content is copyrighted.


From a copyright standpoint, it is always less risky to link a photo or other image than to copy and paste it onto your website or social media platform. And it’s best not to embed that link, but rather set up a URL. A U.S. court case in February 2018 raised the risk of embedding images.


Whenever possible, use photos and other images you’ve taken yourself, but keep the following in mind:

  • Unless you are employed and have taken the photos as part of your work, you own the copyright of your photos.
  • Don’t forget to obtain a model release from any person in your photographs. This is not a copyright issue, but a privacy / publicity issue.
  • Note that if you have licensed your images to someone else, you may have restricted their use.


Use Creative Commons (CC) licensed images. However, keep in mind that a CC license is just that – a license. You have to read its terms and conditions and see what it allows or does not allow.

Not all CC licenses allow the same uses. A CC license may allow use as is, in a remix or as part of a new work. All CC licenses require attribution of the copyright owner.


Purchase images from stock photo agencies and abide by the license terms. Remember, you’re not buying an image directly from a stock agency, you’re paying for certain uses for it. Read the specific terms and conditions (to which you have consented). For example, you may be able to post the image on your blog but require additional permission to use it on the cover of your e-book.

Always check that the author of the image has the rights to allow you to use it. They may have assigned their rights to someone else and no longer own the copyright on the image. Or, they may have created the photograph or other image as part of their job duties and their employer owns the copyright to the image.

Ask the creator of the image to provide you with a guarantee or make sure that he is the creator of the image, that he still owns the rights to the image, and that he has the right to give you permission to use it.

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