When Is Free Really Free: Understanding Copyrights In The Online World

You certainly don’t want to mar your online presence with a reputation for copyright infringement. But how can you be certain it is OK to use something, and how do you go about sharing it without negative consequences? Let’s try to break it down.

Multiple terms you may come across that are not exactly interchangeable may be:

  • Copyright
  • Royalty-Free
  • Creative Commons
  • Public Domain
  • Fair Use

Many of these have different definitions are based on the actual site it is coming from and many on the country you may live in. Much in this article will be generalized, so as clear as we can try to make it, remember it can still vary in each situation.

Understanding The Different Terms

Technology has created a wealth of knowledge and resources literally at our fingertips. However, it’s not free to use just because it’s free and easy to access. Confusing terms like Royalty-Free and Public Domain could land you in some trouble when it comes to usage rights.

Creative Commons

Google can find what you are looking for. It does not mean it’s public access once it finds it. Within the Google image search, you can sort the images you are viewing by “Usage Rights” in the Advanced Search options. Even images here that are “Labeled for reuse” may still require proper credit given to the owner. So you should still follow the image to the original page to verify just how “reusable” the image truly is.  Flickr is a photo-sharing site that has millions of Creative Commons images for use and symbols make it easy to identify what the owner of the image requires for its use. It can be as easy as including the authors name and link back to their photo page, but it’s a simple step that cannot be missed.

If something is Creative Commons, you will know as the creator has made the choice to designate the work as creative commons. When you actually go to the Creative Commons website, you are able to search multiple platforms from CC media, images, and music. Even the website notes “CC has no control over the results that are returned. Do not assume that the results displayed in this search portal are under a CC license. You should always verify that the work is actually under a CC license by following the link.” They acknowledge the importance of verifying if something truly is Creative Commons, even though the source is coming from their own website.


An example of a popular site that distributes royalty-free images is Getty Images. You pay a fee for the photograph you desire and can reuse it over and over. Here is their policy with their royalty-free products:

“Royalty-free products may be used by you multiple times for multiple projects without incurring additional fees. Royalty-free pricing is based solely on the file size of the product you need and the number of people entitled to use it (maximum 10), not the specific use. You don’t have to pay any additional royalties for successive uses of a royalty-free product. However, as with all Getty Images licenses, the rights granted are non-transferable and are personal to you. This means that if you license a royalty-free product to be used in a derivative work by your client or any other person, they may not use the licensed product separately from the derivative work. Royalty-free licenses are always non-exclusive. All licenses of royalty-free products are subject to Getty Images’ Royalty-Free Licence Agreement.”

You can already see variations within this agreement, such as a maximum of 10 people using it off your single purchase of the license. One person cannot buy the photo and share it around with dozens of others. Always read the fine print and conditions. Copyright infringement has many stems and can be from whole or partial use of another property, using outside the license originally granted, changing it without permission.

Serious Consequences

Even if you are just a small blog with limited visitors, you are never too small to be exempt from the law. For example, PR Daily had a writer post a blog that had an underwhelming amount of views back in 2013. There was a poor quality image used in the post and months after it was online, they were slapped with a lawsuit and sued for $8,000 for using a copyrighted photo on the website.

“We were under the mistaken impression that before anyone could be sued, the offender had to ignore a request to take down the copyrighted image. Because the lawsuit came without any kind of warning, and because this was the first time we’d ever been accused of such a thing, we were hoping that replacing the image and sincerely apologizing to Mr. Leech and his client would remedy the situation. We were wrong,” PR Daily noted ruefully.

They ended up having to pay $3000 after negotiations with the lawyer. Ignorance isn’t an excuse when it comes to copyright infringement.


To summarize, everything that is original work is under copyright protection upon its creation. Just because something is publicly accessible does not categorize it as public domain. Lack of knowledge doesn’t dismiss you from the law and copyright infringement is a serious thing. When something is creative commons or public domain it will be clear and if you are using it on your site it should be clear to avoid any misuse or incorrect licensing and. Always understand licensing and what credit needs to be given. Be clear on the terms when using sites for royalty-free as they can vary on each one. Understand fair use only applies in certain situations.

While other things like gluten-free food may be clearly labeled, the internet is another world. Using and sharing copyrighted material is just a part of life and running a business. You just need to go about in the proper way, giving respect to those whose work you are using. Whether you are a big business or a small blog, cite right and your site will succeed.


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  1. Thank you Christopher and Dawn for sharing your exipeernces. While death can be difficult for those of us left behind, it can certainly be beautiful and full of peace.

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Written by Desiree Armstrong

Desiree is a Writing, Business and Film graduate from the University of Victoria. She received an Award of Distinction from the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business upon graduation. All through her studies, she worked for UVic Corporate Relations as a Brand Ambassador and was the Director of the non-profit dance company Victoria Dance Theatre. While living in Montreal, she was the Promotions & Marketing Manager for the band Tofu Stravinsky. Now living in Vancouver, Desiree is working as the Marketing Coordinator of NativesAds. Her social media skills are topnotch and she is also a writer with a diverse range from lifestyle & entertainment to advertising & marketing. Additionally, she’s an avid dancer, who loves to take the stage and entertain a crowd.