Online Image Use: Fair Use vs. Creative Commons

Online Image Use: Fair Use vs. Creative Commons


Fair use essentially means that you can use someone’s copyrighted material without permission and they can’t do anything about it BUT there are four things that must be considered.


  1. What you are using it for: if you are using it for – educational, non-profit, commentary, news reporting, scholarship, and research then you should be okay but it may still be best to ask permission.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work using an image of a portion of a painting to illustrate a type of brush stroke might be acceptable but using an image of the painting to illustrate your book might not.
  3. The amount and substantially used: Are you using a small piece or thumbnail or something with low resolution rather than a pristine, large print. A good example would be a picture of a garden filled with flowers but you only show one flower as an example of that specific flower.
  4. Market effect of the use on the original copyrighted material. Does it (or could it) affect the value or marketability of the original work. Is it or could it be detrimental to the market value of the work.


Courts determine these on a case by case basis and even the copyright office is hesitant to provide specific advice on fair use. There is no guarantee that you won’t face legal issues. When in doubt – ask permission from the creator.


NOTE: I am not a lawyer just a person searching for information to help me stay within the law and this is in no way intended to be legal advice. I have listed sites below that may be helpful for your own research which I found very informative and helpful.



Creative Commons refers to non-profit groups who provide free to use images as long as you agree to and follow their Terms of Use. Usually you need to sign up or register with the site. Some sites require you to give attribution for the pictures used and you may not use them on items like cups or t-shirts to sell. Other sites do allow them to be used on cups and t-shirts. It is important that you carefully read and adhere to their terms. I would suggest that if you use a creative commons site you create a file that has a copy of their terms and every picture you use from that site. Below are a few sites that may help you find some creative commons sites.


When using images you find online you have to realize that you are always taking a risk. Do your homework and keep records of every image you use and assume every image is copyrighted until you prove otherwise.


MUO – MakeUseOf

Top 5 Websites for Quality Copyright Free Photographs


Computer Hope

Where Can I Find Free Public Domain Images & Pictures?




Public Domain Images – What is Allowed & What is Not





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