Is it Dangerous to Use Free Stock Photo Websites?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and nothing in this post is intended to function as legal advice. If you have specific questions to your situation, please consult an attorney.

On the internet, there are a variety of free stock photography websites (both royalty free and free of cost). They include Unsplash, Pixabay, Pexels and many, many more.

However, for every site that offers free stock photography, there are dozens of articles saying why you shouldn’t use them. These articles come from a variety of sources including publishing blogs, sites that help those that run churches and even sites that help photographers enforce their images

All this raises a simple question: Just how dangerous are free stock photo websites and, if they are dangerous, what are those particular dangers?

To understand that, we have to delve deeper into the potential legal issues that arise from free stock photography websites and why some artists want users to be cautious around them.

The Reasons Given

When it comes to free stock photography websites, there are two reasons that are most commonly cited as issues:

  1. Copyright – Free stock photography sites, in general, allow virtually anyone to upload images. There’s no real checks to ensure that the uploader has permission to upload that content and make it available for free use. In addition, there are concerns that many stock photography sites provide limited licenses to users and many unwittingly overstep them.
  2. Model Releases – Free stock photography sites do not check to see if a photographer has collected the needed model releases for using someone’s likeness in an image. As such, the people in the photo, if they are recognizable, may be able to sue those that use it.

These issues are compounded by a lack of indemnification (legal protection) by the free stock photography. The sites and their images are free, but that also means that they offer no legal protection for you should the images turn out to have issues.

As unlikely as a legal dispute is, it would only take one for the cost of using free stock photography to outweigh the costs of simply using a subscription service.

To that end, there are ongoing campaigns to find and detect infringing images online. A variety of services work to find copied images, and many engage in speculative invoicing and litigation as part of their strategy. 

As such, the risk of copying images is only rising, and it may be a good time to seek out alternatives.

Reasons to Calm Down (Some)

As scary as all this is, it’s important to remember that lawsuits and legal disputes stemming from people using free stock photo websites are, to the best of my knowledge, still very rare. 

The reason is that any artist who is aggressively protecting their work would likely notice it on a free stock photo website and quickly remove it from there. All the major free stock photography websites have a policy for removing such infringing images. 

While that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that you could find and use such an image before it can be removed. It does make it much less likely.

The thornier risk is the issue of model releases, especially if you are using the images in a commercial manner. However, that risk can be sidestepped by simply not using images with recognizable people in it. If you don’t need to have people in your images, then don’t use them.

So while there are risks, they are often more theoretical than practical. While there’s no doubt that using a free stock photography site is more dangerous than using a paid service that provides you indemnification, it’s far safer than simply copying images from a Google search or grabbing whatever you find online.

In short, it’s easily the least dangerous of the free alternatives, but it’s still well worth taking some reasonable precautions.

Reasonable Precautions

Note: To Repeat, I am not a lawyer, nothing in this post is intended to be legal advice. 

The ideal solution is simply for everyone that would use a free stock photo service, to instead switch to a paid service that provides indemnification and legal support. 

If you need to use stock images on your site, this is easily the safest option and with new services constantly coming online, you can likely find one that is affordable for your needs.

However, that is also not a practical solution for everyone. There are many whose needs and budgets necessitate finding free images. To that end, a free stock photo website, may be the only viable solution.

That said, if you are going to use a free stock photo website, it is critical to first know that it is riskier than using a paid one with indemnification. Beyond that, there are several things that one can (and should) do to mitigate those risks, at least some.

  1. Read the License Carefully – Make sure you fully understand the license, the terms of it and what is expected of you. There are often restrictions on the size, nature of use and other variable you need to be aware of.
  2. Avoid Photos of People – Avoid using photographs of people, especially for commercial purposes. You have no way to know what, if any, release the model provided and, even if the photographer legitimately licensed the image from a copyright standpoint, they may not be able to license the person’s likeness.
  3. Stick to Major Stock Photo Websites – Finally, make sure to stick to the major stock photography websites. Both Pexels and Pixabay are owned by Canva and Getty Images owns Unsplash. Both are major players in the stock photography landscape. Though this doesn’t necessarily protect you, it does mean that the companies will not ignore copyright or other legal issues if it is brought to their attention.
  4. Consider Alternative Sources – Finally, you may want to consider alternative sources such as Wikimedia Commons or the Internet Archive, which plays host to public domain and open-licensed media. While these carry their own risks, at least for most of the content, some effort was put into verifying their copyright status. 

So while there are definitely risks involved with using a free stock photo website, it’s still more safe than other free (and outright illegal) alternatives. If a paid service truly is not an option, then you are much better off with a free stock photo site, especially if you take some reasonable precautions.

Bottom Line

Everything in life carries risk. The only way to avoid copyright issues with photography is to take or create all the images you need for yourself. However, even that can still raise some issues if one isn’t careful and, more to the point, it isn’t practical for the vast majority of people.

A free site is clearly riskier than paid alternatives, in particular those that provide indemnification. However, every person must make their own decision about whether that risk is worthwhile.

If you do decide it is worthwhile, it’s important to take reasonable steps to mitigate those risks and, at the very least, reduce the danger.

In the end, I don’t view free stock photo websites as either inherently good or inherently bad. They are neither inherently safe nor inherently dangerous. They are tools and they have their place. However, for those using the tools, it’s important to know the risks, the alternatives and make an informed decision based upon that information.

If you can do that, you’re already well ahead of many people when it comes to sourcing their images online.