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Images are critically important to your marketing campaign. Both your content marketing—blog posts, e-books, and more—and your social media updates are enhanced dramatically with the use of quality images. And of course, images open up a whole new realm of SEO possibilities through alt tags, click value and more.

If you go the stock route, you could end up spending a small fortune on image usage fees, especially if you’re posting every day. There are plenty of images to be found for free, but finding them can be tricky. If you violate the rules and regulations of free image use, you can get yourself in hot water with brands and big-name publishers.

Why Use Images in Your Inbound Marketing Efforts?

There are a few compelling reasons you should be using images in all of your inbound marketing efforts, including:

  1. Growth of image-sharing sites such as Pinterest. If your blog post doesn’t have an accompanying image, how will anyone share it on Pinterest?
  2. Images increase engagement. It’s been proven over and over again that social status updates that contain images are more likely to be clicked, commented on and shared.
  3. Images add visual appeal and attract attention. Why are status updates with images more likely to be clicked and shared? In a sea of simple text updates, an appealing image is sure to stand out. Even as more marketers realize the importance of images, a high-quality image can serve to catch the eye.

Even better, you can almost always find free images that suit your needs on the Web, if you follow the rules.

Image Copyright Laws on the Web

U.S. Copyright law gives authors the full rights to works they produce, along with the right to publicly display and create derivatives of those works as they wish. It’s illegal under Copyright law for anyone other than the author of a work to use it without permission, in any of the ways in which the author can.

  1. Always assume that images you locate on the Web are Copyrighted, unless otherwise noted. Even if you don’t see the © symbol or any legal text denoting that the images are protected and not for public use without explicit permission.
  2. Images released for public use may be subject to additional conditions. Always read the fine print for the image usage rights before using an image you believe is in the public domain. Restrictions can include not using the image for advertisements or commercial use, not creating derivatives or altering the work in any manner.

Consequences for Ripping Off Images

Making use of any image you find available on the Internet is easy enough, but doing so without caution can lead to some pretty severe consequences. Using images you find on big-name publishers will almost certainly result in a cease-and-desist order from their corporate attorneys. If you get one of those, it’s in your best interest to remove the image, pronto. Ripping off images not designed for public use can lead to fines and even lawsuits, especially if you delve into the area of violating copyright. (Which you’re basically doing if you use an image without permission.)

Dreamstime points out one example of a company which was forced to pay a $4,000 fine for the use of a single image without permission. The image in question was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office—which may or may not be indicated by a © or other text. You simply can’t always tell, and it’s always better to take the route of over-preparation than to be slammed with a couple-thousand-dollar fine when you could put a few grand to much better use.

How to Identify a “Free” and Legal Image

So when can you use images for free? There are a few key indicators that an image is in the free and clear.

  1. It’s in the public domain. Any image in the public domain is fair game for usage. There’s typically a qualifying legal statement accompanying public domain images—if you don’t see one, don’t assume it applies.
  2. It’s been labeled “Copyright-free”. Some owners, instead of issuing their images to the public domain, will label them “copyright-free”. Essentially, it means almost the same thing, but you should always read the fine print associated with Copyright-free images. This designation doesn’t necessarily mean you can alter the work or make derivatives. In most cases, owners place restrictions on the manner in which the work can be used.
  3. It’s been openly licensed. An open-license image is commonly referred to as a “Creative Commons” image. Similar to a Copyright-free image, owners may place certain restrictions on how the work may be used for other purposes. Whether you can use a Creative Common image for advertisements, creative derivatives and alter the work depends on the specific Creative Commons license issues and the restrictions set forth by the original owner.

Where to Look for Free (or Affordable) Images

Now that you’re informed of the rules and regs related to image-sourcing on the Web, where can you turn to locate them? There are also some pretty great resources out there for finding worthy—and legit legal—images for your use.

  1. Google’s Image Search (be sure to use the appropriate search filters)
  2. Flickr Creative Commons (be sure to check the author’s restrictions before use)
  3. Stock.xchng
  4. Wikimedia Commons
  5. Dozens of others.

So what do you do if you search for free images and come up short of nothing? There are ways to obtain licensed images without forking over hundreds of dollars for them. And that comes in the form of stock images that you pay usage rights for. These aren’t free, but do cost a miniscule amount compared to what you’d pay for using an image from another site without prior authorization. Sites where you can find stock images for a lower fee include:

  1. Dreamstime
  2. Shutterstock
  3. iStockPhoto
  4. Jupiter Images
  5. And dozens more.

When it comes to using images on the web, there are two final—and general—rules to keep in mind: Always use images when possible, and make sure you’re using images in a legal manner. The images appearing all over the Web aren’t free for use simply because they’ve been placed online. Read the fine print and stick to legit uses, and you’ll reap the rewards of images without risking being hit with thousands of dollars in fines.