Everyone knows they need images for their blogs, and everyone knows you shouldn’t steal. Unfortunately, a lot of folks have trouble navigating those two rules at the same time.
I recently read an article that advised writers to find images using a Google image search, and then to decide whether it is okay to use one based on how often the image has been shared. The (il)logic of this advice was that if an image has already been shared many times before, then it is probably okay for you to share as well.
No. No no no nononononnono. NO.
Writers. Do. Not. Do. This. It is stealing.
It’s true that if the image is already widely dispersed, you probably won’t get “caught” if you share it too. But that doesn’t make it right. And you, of all people, ought to care about this.
You, as a writer, deserve to be paid for your work, either with your permission and credit given (at bare minimum) or money (ideally). Artists. Do. Too. If you’ve ever seen your words on someone else’s blog and realized indignantly that they didn’t credit you, you understand this point viscerally. Even if they credited you with the material, but they used it without your permission, you probably felt violated, and no surprise. They stole it from you, even if they did slap your name on it.
For artists, the problem is even bigger than for writers. Generally speaking, it’s unusual for a large work of writing to get shared widely without credit, and when that does happen, it’s relatively easy to correct. (I didn’t say “easy,” just… relatively so.)
The nature of art, however, is that it is extremely easy to share without credit. Consider the case of the photographer who became famous when PETA sued him on behalf of a monkey, claiming that the monkey owned the rights to a viral photograph because the monkey had pressed the shutter. The photo was an incredible work of art, and I won’t share it here because I don’t have the artist’s permission, but you can definitely find it on Google images or via the link above to NPR, who most certainly obtained proper permissions before printing it because they are a reputable and honorable organization.
Back to the point. That photo has been shared millions of times. The photographer, at last reporting, was struggling to maintain his career because he wasn’t getting paid for any of it. If you think it’s okay for an artist to put in the years of study, and work, and effort, and timing, and creativity to obtain a shot as stunning as that shot and then to lose the right to manage it and end up poorer than before because everyone and their sister on the internet thinks the photo belongs to them… well, you’re wrong, and you probably shouldn’t be a writer. #HardTruths
So. Here you are, struggling to get noticed and to build a following and to illustrate your words with pictures and videos, which aren’t your thing because you like WORDS, darnit, and so what are you supposed to do? Fortunately, it’s not actually that hard. Here are 9 easy, free-or-cheap ways to find and use visual material for your blog without stealing from artists.
One: Public Domain and Creative Commons
If you’re just getting started or blogging purely for pleasure, you probably don’t want to spend a ton of money on images. And lucky you! There are plenty of places to find free art and photography that is either public domain or that the artists have voluntarily offered for public use (creative commons), sometimes with a requirement to include credit. Wikimedia Commons Images is a fairly comprehensive collection, and is easy to search and use. My friend Kyle Crew also suggests you try Public Domain Review, and Suzy Dees says you can search Flickr for creative commons images.
The down side of public domain is that it can sometimes be hard to find just the right thing and the quality of the images varies significantly. Additionally, much of the material is historical in nature and lacks relevance for modern topics. One easy solution to this is to couple this source with the next one: Canva.
Canva is a blogger’s dream. If you haven’t tried it out, do it now. The service makes it super simple to edit and customize images that you upload yourself (such as something you found on Wikimedia Commons), and also provides a large library of free-to-use and pay-to-use photos, layouts, graphic elements, and illustrations. The free version is ideal for hobbyists and others who really can’t afford to pay for images, while the monthly premium plan is both affordable and amazing for anyone who publishes a lot and can afford a few bucks on a monthly basis.
If Canva doesn’t float your boat, there are plenty of other options. Stephanie Boyette Nelson at SBN Marketing says she finds Pic Monkey to be more user friendly. She also had a few additional recommendations to try out.
By combining a free photo source such as Wikimedia Commons with Canva, authors can quickly and easily create completely custom visual content that does not infringe on anyone’s rights. But remember to credit the artist!
If you really want to own your illustrations, create them yourself. Something that you’ve created is yours forever and always, and you never have to pay for it or ask permission. Screenshots are a great way to create images for your blog. You can screenshot conversations on Twitter, Facebook posts, graphs you create in a spreadsheet, steps in a process you’re describing, or almost anything else.
But be careful.
Don’t use this as a work-around for avoiding copyright laws. If your screenshot consists entirely or primarily of someone’s copyrighted work, it is still a copyright violation. It’s beyond the scope of this post to examine where that line is, just be aware that the line is there, and be very careful. Safest: Don’t screenshot art or photos that don’t belong to you, even as elements in a larger image.
And protect the privacy of your friends and associates. Screenshots of conversations on public posts (such as the one below) are fine to share, but don’t screen cap conversations in private groups or private messages without the permission of everyone involved. If in doubt, consider blacking out identifying information such as photos and names. Use common sense and treat other people with respect.
As you can see from my friend Janis’ response to my inquiry, artists CARE ABOUT PROTECTING THEIR ART. Be a decent human being and don’t make it harder on them.
And while we’re on the topic of screenshots and whether artists and photographers care, literally the same day I wrote this post another friend posted this:
That’s Krista Anderson of Emozen, and she wants you to stop stealing her stuff and other artists’ stuff. Please. And of course I asked her permission to use it, and she offered it enthusiastically. Even though it’s a screenshot, it’s a great example of how you can take a screenshot that mostly contains someone else’s work… and when you do that, you need to ask permission & credit the artist!
Four: Photos of Your Own
You don’t have to be a professional photographer to create photography for your blog. Depending on the content and the audience and the style, something as simple as a silly selfie or a shot of tulips in your yard can add a personal touch that attracts readers and builds connections. It’s also a good idea to look for interesting textures in your environment and to get in the habit of shooting photos of them. This can be rocks in a path or the texture of grass or even the sky. These type of images can serve as excellent backgrounds for quotes and other types of content you create in Canva, and you’ll never have to worry about copyright on them.
Also? You can make your own videos SO EASILY nowadays. Like this one that I made in about six minutes.
Five: Stock Photography
If you’ve got a half a minute, you can find hundreds of stock photography sites that will take your bucks in exchange for images. Most of them let you purchase either individual photos or a monthly subscription. A word of caution: The standard stock photography places tend to offer a lot of cheesy stuff, and if you use it unedited, the odds are high that your unique written work will share the same feature image as a dozen other works… and that’s not a great thing for you. However, editing in Canva can eliminate this problem. So can being selective about where you find your images.
Artist Anthony (Ant) Pruitt suggests Adobe Stock because it allows individual artists (like Ant) to upload their work and get paid for it. This means you get access to a wider variety of unique visual elements, while ensuring the artists behind it get paid.
I also checked out Hillary’s suggestion (see screenshot above) of Unsplash, which is free, and I like what I see. I did a quick search for “blogger” and came up with 978 options. Many of them were standard stock I’ve seen elsewhere, but there was some pretty interesting stuff in there too, like this moody photo by Andrew Neel.
Of all the recommendations offered, Unsplash is the site that popped up again and again. Amy Baldwin George and others also recommended pixabay, which I haven’t tested, but with so many recommendations to its credit, it’s worth checking out.
Six: Partner With An Artist
You know who sometimes need writers as much as writers need art? Artists! If you know artists and photographers, it’s worth reaching out to them to ask whether they’d be willing to let you use some of their work with credit. If you do this, make sure the relationship provides value to both of you, either by exchanging work on each other’s blogs or some other means that makes sense for them and you. And if they say no or waffle about it, don’t press the issue. This is only a good option if it’s good for both of you.
My friend Ivy Decker (whose work is featured above) is an artist and a successful, published author who helps other writers get published. She’s pretty freaking amazing and you should totally check out her comic strip as well as her blog. Oh, and she gave me permission to use the comic above because we’re friends and, I suspect, because she knows I’ll treat her work with respect. True professionals respect each other.
By the way, in case you don’t know, you don’t have to apply for a copyright to protect your work. Your original work is legally copyrighted the moment you produce it. The same goes for artists. It doesn’t matter whether they’ve displayed it online or not, it’s still theirs and it’s still protected. Behave like a professional.
Seven: Ask Permission
Found the absolutely perfect image and you really, really, really want to use it? Reach out to the artist and ask. It can sometimes be hard to track down the artist, but don’t let that deter you. Hard is not impossible. Do an image search and dig for artist information. You’ll often find artists whose work has been shared widely are active on Deviantart, which provides a comment section that allows you to contact the artist.
Many of them will be glad you contacted them and grateful that you asked and may be willing to let you use their art in exchange for a link back to them. HOWEVER, proceed with caution. Not all artists are willing to work for links, and rightly so. Respect the no that some of them will give you. For that matter, respect the non-answer some will give you as a “no.” The rule of positive consent applies here.
Eight: Embed Video
By the way… another super simple easy way to add visual content is to embed videos! If it’s on Youtube or Vimeo, you canNOT just download it and call it your own, but you CAN stick a link in your blog and let it embed for your readers to watch. This works because the technology automatically creates the trail right back to the work and the creator of the work, and by publishing the video content on these sites, the authors have already granted the permission for you to do that.
Nine: Commission It
Author and coach Angie Stegall says she gets inexpensive commissioned artwork through Fiverr, where artists offer up their services in exchange for affordable prices. This is also a great place to get cover art and other visual elements to illustrate your other types of work (books, ebooks, etc).
So there you have it. With so many easy and free-or-cheap ways to illustrate your blog, there is simply no excuse for stealing someone’s work. I hope you enjoyed the list, and if you know of other great places to grab visual content responsibly, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.