Free images licensing is broad. The license allows free usage of the image, without paying anything. You can use the images anywhere. However, there are a few things you need to look for to make sure you are not infringing copyright.
Disclaimer: This article serves as a guide only. You should check with an attorney to verify if your specific situation is not part of an exception or a particular law in your country. This article is not legal advice.
In this illustration, you can see that the licenses for the most popular free images websites are similar. The illustration covers the main idea, but I encourage you to dive deeper into the article if you are unsure.
Are free images free free free for commercial use?
Yes, Yes, Yes, but with the following catch. Some elements in the image might not be legal for the author to share.
Make sure the image does not contain:
- Identifiable people
- Private property
- Visible logos
- Some public buildings*
* To find out what public buildings are protected, a great resource is https://wiki.gettyimages.com
Free images commercial vs editorial
Image usage is either commercial or non-commercial. The non-commercial usage is often called editorial.
Free images from Unsplash, Pexels, or Pixabay provide a license based on the final use of the picture. So it’s essential if the image use is for commercial purposes or editorial purposes.
What is editorial use?
Editorial use refers to images used for reporting news, criticism, or educational purposes.
Is editorial use allowed for free images?
Yes, Unsplash, Pixabay, and Pexels provide images from their users, which allow editorial usage.
What is commercial use?
Commercial use is easy to explain as anything that is not editorial. So this means that the image has the potential of contributing to a profit made by the user.
Is commercial use allowed for free images?
Yes, but as mentioned before, there are cases where those images infringe copyright, and the author was not allowed to share them. Because of that, you need to check that the image does not contain identifiable people, private property, trademarks, visible logos, and some public buildings*
You can read more about editorial vs commercial here: https://nvision.co/digital-marketing/commercial-and-editorial-use/
Who is liable in the case of free images?
You publish the content, so you are liable for breaking any copyright laws.
As you can see in the illustration above, there are three parties involved when it comes to free images: The content owner, the service provider, and the publisher.
Who is the content owner?
The content owner is the author of the image—the person that uploads the image to Pexels, Unsplash, Pixabay, or the like. The content owner owns copyright rights.
If the author uploads an image with any element, they do not own the copyright, then that means they are breaking copyright laws. Those elements include identifiable people, private property, trademarks, visible logos, and some public buildings.
Who is the service provider?
The service provider is the platform that intermediates upload and download. Unsplash, Pexels, Pixabay are examples of service providers.
Trough their terms, they receive from the author a nonexclusive license, that allows them to do anything with the images. They specify the rights to host, store, transfer, display, adapt, perform, reproduce, modify, translate, and distribute the images.
They do not own the copyrights, they only have a license. As mention, the content owner still owns the copyright.
Who is the publisher?
You are the publisher. Any person that publishes a free image on their WordPress website is a publisher. It doesn’t matter where you post it, as long as other people could see it, you are the publisher.
So it doesn’t matter if you download free images via the WordPress plugin or the Unsplash website. You are the publisher. You are liable for copyright infringement. So is the content owner.
Here’s an example of a copyright infringement situation related to free images: https://www.thephoblographer.com/2019/07/15/unsplash-copyright-infringement/
How do free images copyright work?
All images, including free images, are subject to copyright. In other words, the authors do not need to submit paperwork for copyright protection.
Image copyright applies automatically to any artwork without the need to file any paperwork. Some people tend to think that users need to register their copyright, but that is not the case. Registration only applies to patents and trademarks.
Unsplash, Pixabay, or Pexels do not own the copyrights of the images, the users that uploaded those images do. The uploaders own all the data. But, they are providing a license so that platforms can distribute the pictures for free. That means with no claims from the author.
The Unsplash terms page as well as Pixabay and Pexels, mention the following; The uploaders need to make sure that they fully own the rights to everything that is part of the image. They also ask them to make sure that they are not infringing on the copyright of other parties.
You can find more detailed information about copyright here: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/copyright-fair-use-and-how-it-works-for-online-images/
You can also read more about the copyright term and its history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright
Important terms to remember
Aside from Commercial and Editorial use, you will also see often the term: royalty-free and as well as exclusive/non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, download, copy, and modify.
What is royalty-free? Are free images royalty-free?
Royalty-free is a type of license. It means that you can use the image without paying fees based on usage. In terms of free images licensing, it means you can use them indefinitely without paying initially or after.
Pexels and Pixabay include the wording royalty-free in their license while Unsplash does not.
However, Unsplash, Pixabay, and Pexels provide images for free, so the idea of royalty-free applies. You will not have to pay based on usage for the pictures you use.
Exclusive / Nonexclusive
Free images from Unsplash, the WordPress Unsplash plugin, or Pexels and Pixabay from the website or the WordPress stock images plugin, are nonexclusive. Nonexclusive means you share the rights, and other users can use the image too.
Read more about exclusive / nonexclusive here: https://united-kingdom.taylorwessing.com/synapse/commerical_exclusive_nonexclusive.html
Perpetual is related to the royalty-free term, and basically, it means that you get the right forever. Legally speaking, once you download, you will always have the right to use the image, even if the author decides to remove their image. However, I encourage you to contact a lawyer if a photographer asks you to take his photo down from your website. He might not have had copyright rights on everything part of the free image.
You can find out more about perpetual here: https://definitions.uslegal.com/p/perpetual-statute/
As mentioned for perpetual, the license cannot be revoked. So once you download, you get the license as is, and no one can revoke it. Also, you can’t get the rights you receive reduced after. For example, the photographer can’t change their mind and start charging you for the image later.
Read more about irrevocable here: https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=5ff7078c-e8c8-4b8e-8d18-23492ebbe68c and
The rest of the terms are more straightforward;
Worldwide means that this license applies to all countries.
Also, for all assets, you can be download, copy, or modify free of charge. This is an enumeration of the rights that are allowed. Some include the right to distribute, but not all of them. Also, Unsplash, Pixabay, and Pexels specifically exclude their images from being collected and used in a similar photo-sharing environment.
Should I use free images?
The free images platforms licensing only restricts images from being compiled to create a similar platform. Anything else is allowed. So using a free image for commercial or editorial use is allowed.
However, we encourage you always to make sure that the image that you use does not contain: identifiable people, private property, trademarks, visible logos, and some public buildings*. Please double-check, especially if you are using the image for commercial use.
If you have questions, or you think we missed something, let us know in the comments.
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