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The ultimate guide to finding free, legal images online

Lesa Snider | March 23, 2015
You may not realize it, but if you use Google to find an image and then use it in a project, you're likely breaking the law. Unless you've been given permission to use the image by its creator, then you cannot legally or ethically use it.

Creative Commons images

But what if you don't want to spend even a few bucks on an image? Can't you just search for an image on Google and use it? Negative, good buddy — that is, unless you take one extra step in your search. When you ask Google to find an image, it happily displays everything it can find, no matter who owns it. To limit results to only those images that are legally available for you to use, you need to click through to the Usage Rights options. There are currently two ways to do this:

Method #1. After entering a search term, click the gear icon at upper right and choose Advanced Search. At the bottom of the resulting Advanced Image Search window, pick an option from the Usage Rights popup menu. If you want to use but not change the image, choose "free to use or share, even commercially."

Method #2. Enter a search term, click the Search Tools button, and then from the Usage Rights menu that appears, choose "Labeled for reuse."

That said, if your project is of a personal nature — say, your Mac user group's meeting or newsletter — you may see more images by choosing one of the "noncommercial" options. Either way, Google only displays images whose copyright holders have indicated that you can use their images however you want.

Of course, Google isn't the only source for images you can freely use. For additional options, visit these websites:

Wikimedia Commons has a collection of millions of media files to which anyone can contribute.

The Commons on Flickr collects photos in the public domain from private institutions and government agencies around the globe. This site is an absolute goldmine for images outside the U.S.

The John F. Kennedy Library has thousands of photographs and hundreds of reels of film available and searchable online. Many of the images and collected documents are in the public domain and would be a valuable addition to any Kennedy-era project.

As you can see, there are gobs of perfectly legal sources for images you can freely, so there's really no excuse for stealing photos (because that's what it really is). Besides being The Right Thing To Do, verifying your right to use an image protects you from some seriously nasty legal action and may even help you sleep better at night. Until next time, may the creative force be with you all!


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