There is no excuse for online photo theft

Image in this article courtesy of Sephraim and released under Creative Commons

Copying images from the web and using them to illustrate news articles without permission is a global problem. I've come across it in many countries where I have been delivering media training.

Some journalists seem to think that the word copyright means that they have the right to copy. It doesn't and there is a better way.

Sourcing pictures legally

The following system is legal and it will help you find excellent images that you are allowed to use.

It will also help those whose work you want to reproduce.

The good news is that more and more photographers are making their images available for all to use under Creative Commons.

All you need to do is attribute the work to the photographer in the way they stipulate. The benefit is that you know that the images you use are legal, and the photographer gets a link on your site which helps them promote their work - everyone is a winner. 

And it’s not only about finding images. If you use Creative Commons search you can look for any assets across a wide range of online resources.

More and more photographers are making their images available under Creative Commons. And it's useful for other media assets, too, not just images. Click on screen grab below to go to the site.

Creative Commons Search screen grab

Searching and editing

My preferred method – which is included in the Creative Commons search page - is to go direct to Flickr.

Follow these steps to find pictures you are free to use in your digital journalism.

  • Enter a description for the picture in the Flickr search box
  • Hit return or click the word ‘search’
  • Click on the ‘advanced search’ link

Flickr advanced search

  • Scroll down to the bottom of the page where you will see the Creative Commons details
  • Check the boxes that apply to your need (for example, if you want to crop the picture you will need to click the option that reads ‘Find content to modify, adapt, or build upon’)
  • Click search again.

Creative Commons License

What you will now see is an assortment of pictures that you are legally entitled to use under the conditions set out in the Creative Commons license.

Click the image you want. When it loads, right click the image to see the sizes you can download and to check the type of Creative Commons license associated with the picture.

Select the size you want and then download it to your desktop.

Read the conditions of the Creative Commons license carefully

Attribution and thanks

Copy the URL (web address) of the image and the name of the person who took the picture.

You will need these later for attribution purposes.

If you have time, send a message to the person who took the picture thanking them for making it available under Creative Commons and telling them how you intend to use it. You don’t have to do this, but it’s a nice touch and always results in a friendly reply (in my experience).

When you upload the image to the story make sure you add an attribution in the image alt and title tags.

This is often called the description box in content management systems.

Doing this means that the attribution will be seen when people hover over the image with their mouse.

You should also make clear who took the picture in your article and link to their photostream (if they want that).

You can do this either in a caption, or in a note at the bottom of the piece as I have done for the image used at the top of this piece (which was sourced using the method outlined above).

Send a message to the person who took the picture thanking them for making it available under Creative Commons

Editing the image if allowed

If you selected the option to ‘Find content to modify, adapt, or build upon’ you can now edit the image.

Find content to edit on Flickr


I like using the free editing tool PicMonkey. It's fast and for those who used to use Picnik it works in much the same way.

You can do all the basic editing functions in PicMonkey and then download the finished image to your desktop before uploading it to your site.

You will enjoy finding and using images that are legal - happy hunting.

Journalists who use images illegally damage their own credibility and the integrity of their news organisation.

Note: This article is not suggesting journalists and bloggers ignore the many excellent photo agencies selling images. What it is suggesting is that if you can't afford to pay for pictures it's better to use legal, Creative Commons images rather than just downloading any image from the internet. Apologies to any photo journalists and agencies that might have taken offence (see comment below).

Image courtesy of Sephraim and released under Creative Commons

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who founded Media Helping Media, handing the site over to Fojo in early 2018. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He has spent many years delivering journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.

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