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4 Easiest Ways to Tell if an Image is Copyrighted

It’s time to clear up the blurred lines on copyrighted images: which photos are fair use online?

If you’ve ever longed to add some flare to your website, blog, or PowerPoint presentation, you know how easy it is to creep your way into unintentionally stealing someone else’s images from search engines. Those beautiful photos can turn into one ugly picture for you or your company.

Save yourself some grief and angry copyright infringement letters, and potentially a lawsuit by learning these four methods for determining if an image is protected by a copyright.

  1. Know general signs of a copyrighted image
  2. Research to determine if an image is copyrighted
  3. Understand how the U.S. court evaluates fairness of use
  4. Ask

We also offer you several websites that offer free stock photos to use however you want – so you can avoid using copyrighted images.

1. Know General Signs of a Protected Image

Although there may not always be an immediate way to detect if an image has been copyrighted, a few tell-tale signs do exist. Some of the most simple ways of filtering out protected images include checking for the following characteristics:

example of protected image due to watermark

watermarks: overlays of a symbol or text that may be hidden covertly or displayed upfront to protect an image from being used without owner’s approval. Removing a watermark from someone else’s property is possible, yet highly discouraged.

-a copyright symbol located on the image

-a note indicating ownership or sourcing of the image

-an official copyright listing in the Copyright office (discussed below under “Research to Determine if an Image is Copyrighted”)

it’s not yours. Although not all images have been “officially” copyrighted, at the creation of an image, the snap of a picture, the work has immediately become copyrighted and the owner is the only person with a legal right to distribute, replicate, or display the work.

So I can’t utilize anyone else images since they are legally “copyrighted”? Not exactly. Many subjects resort to court hearings to determine if an image falls under protection.

2. Research to Determine if an Image is Copyrighted

Be doubly-sure of the image source you have found by doing the following:

  1. Conduct a reverse-search on the image (see instructions below). This will allow you to view where the image has been posted and possibly who is the primary poster of the image.
reverse image search on google
Visit Click the camera button on the search bar then choose to upload a picture that you have saved to your computer, or enter the link to an image. Select the blue “Search by Image” button. A list of websites that the image has been embedded in will appear. Voila!
  • Visit the U.S. Copyright office or request an official report. I highly recommend step 1 (above) for several reasons. You may visit the United States’ Copyright Office to conduct a free search of copyrighted files. If you would like to request an official report from U.S. Copyright Office records, be prepared to spend roughly $165 or more per hour (with a two hour minimum) based on search fees.
  • Once you determine the source of the image, there’s only one thing left to do: ask the owner for permission to use the image.

    3. Learn How the Court Evaluates Fair Use

    A few of the questions under analysis during an infringement investigation that determine rights to an image generally include:

    1. How is it being used? Some works may be licensed for non-commercial use, or may have certain terms of use for non-profits and other areas. Read these agreements to prevent malpractice of using the image. Is it transformative? Does it add a different purpose or value to the sourced work? In order to avoid infringement of a copyright, one must substantially alter or re-purpose the original work. If you can prove that you have utilized the image to add value in a different manner, the use may be protected by considering it an “enrichment of society”.
    2. What is the “nature” of the copyrighted piece? This analysis relates to the type of source that has been replicated (this refers more to textual copyrights such as in novels or biographies)
    3. How much or what portion of the copyrighted work is being used?  In the instance that an image has been altered adequately, one may be protected under a “de minimis” defense. This implies that the amount of the source that has been copied is small enough to be justified by court.
    4. What type of influence does the copyrighted work have on the audience or market? If your use of the image solicits a negative attitude towards the owner of the piece or diminishes their income, you may be sued. This generally applies when attempting to penetrate the same market as the original owner.

    4. Just Ask!

    Unfortunately, tacking on a simple disclaimer or attribution doesn’t make an image legal for use. And, it isn’t always clear if an image has been officially copyrighted. In these cases, it is important to inquire the owner of property rights and usage. Before embedding an image you did not create, always obtain permission from the owner of the piece if you did not find it on a public domain or with creative commons licensing.

    In middle school, peeved English teachers warned us of stealing another person’s work. But back then things seemed simple: if you didn’t write it, it wasn’t yours and you shouldn’t use it without proper attribution. Things aren’t much different online, only that the main concern of stealing someone else’s work isn’t “plagiarism” but rather “copyright infringement”. Until you can prove that an image is not copyrighted, don’t use it!

    shallow focus photography of black DSLR camera
    Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

    Also, you can avoid this situation in the first place – there are many websites that offer free high-resolution stock photos to use however you like.

    Here are a couple of our favorites:


    Be a good steward of others’ property, even online!


    1. Yahya A. Erturan

      Thanks for the article. Would you provide an updated link to US Copyright Office free image search.Thanks for the article. Would you provide an updated link to US Copyright Office free image search.

      1. The simplest way to look at copyright vs. not copyrighted images is to search for images that are listed as free use. This can be found on Google Image Search, there are also many websites that are now providing free stock images. If you are unsure of an image’s usage rights, we always check a reverse image search and if we find that the image is sold by a stock image company that is the first red flag, if we can’t determine its usage rights we will err on the side of not using it and finding one that is close.

    2. Michelle E. Black

      Thank you for this. I was having a similar discussion just a few days ago and this is the perfect resource to send her.

    3. Anita Lekhwani

      Hi, I want to use an image a celebrity took and posted on social media. The celebrity is young and I don’t think the image is copyrighted. My school publishes an artistic magazine and I made a piece of art using the image the celebrity took. Do you think it would be alright to use the image. I altered the image a lot, am using it for a different purpose than intended, am not criticizing the photographer or person in the image, nor will it be used for commercial purposes.

      1. I think it is alright if it’s used for educational purposes only.

    Comments are closed.

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