top of page

Copyrighted Images: How to Avoid Copyright Infringement

Today, we are diving deep into how to use digital content and not get sued. We’ll explain all you need to know about copyright, licenses, and how not to land yourself an infringement suit.

This way, we’ll make sure you’re using digital content correctly and maximizing its potential too. Grab a snack, a drink and let’s get started!

What is copyright?

Copyright refers to “an exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material.”

In simpler terms, copyright means the exclusive right to copy.

In the context of the web, copyrighted materials extend to works such as photographs and videos uploaded to Instagram and TikTok or even tweets posted to Twitter.

Let’s try a quick exercise using these few statements:

  • My friend took a photo of me and I posted it on my Instagram without seeking permission.

  • I have erased the watermark from a photo to use it in a personal project.

  • I have recreated someone else’s creative work without significant changes.

  • I have downloaded an image from Google and thought it was okay to do so.

  • I saw a photo with a © symbol but cropped it out because I didn’t know what it was.

If you nodded in agreement to any of these statements, you’ve probably committed an act of copyright infringement. But that will be your last time committing such a crime after reading this article.

Ok, but how does one navigate copyright law in this digital age?

In this digital age, it seems impossible to steer clear of copyright infringement, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, if you find copyright law confusing – you’re at the right place.

Let’s go over the essentials of image copyrights, copyright infringement, licenses and how to avoid copyright infringement.

But first, why do we need copyright law? What’s the point of it?

Perhaps answering this question of ‘why’ can help us better understand copyright law and the reason it exists.

Imagine this: You’re a photographer. You searched high and low for the perfect talent and location, got the paperwork for the talent signed and approved, hired a professional makeup artist and stylist, worked through the poses and themes.

After you snapped the shots, you filtered and edited the images, went through a whole process to find the right distribution channel… all for Mary who lives on the other side of the world to download the image and use it as her own content. No monetary compensation, no acknowledgment.

Would you be okay with it? Probably not. But that whole process is exactly what many photographers have to go through to earn a living from their work.

Which is also precisely why copyright law exists – to protect creators as well as to provide them with the legal right to earn money off of their work.

So think twice before right-clicking to download an image that you think is perfect for your Instagram feed – because that’s considered stealing.

I’ve done that before and I’ve not gotten into trouble. Why should I take copyright seriously?

If you’ve never been caught, lucky you! Copyright infringement, whether intentional or unintentional, can result in massive monetary damages due to legal lawsuits and settlement claims.

Take for instance, paparazzis are notorious for filing copyright infringement suits against celebrities whenever they post photos of themselves which are taken by celebrity news agencies. This has happened to supermodels like Gigi Hadid to rock stars like Miley Cyrus.

According to US copyright law, copyright infringement suits can result in criminal penalties, including imprisonment of up to five years and fines of up to $250,000 per offense. Yikes.

I don’t want to rip off the work of a hardworking photographer, but I still need content fast. What can I do?

Easy! Just get your content from stock content providers like 123RF. All content on their websites have undergone all required checks for quality control, release forms and copyright clearance, with the right licenses for content creators to market and monetize their content.

Of course, we have to plug our own stock content website here – 123RF.

At 123RF, we have three key steps in how we ensure our content is perfectly safe for commercial use:

  1. We require all contributors to provide key details such as their legal name, date of birth and the image so we can properly verify their identity.

  2. The content review team will then thoroughly investigate all submitted content using our strict quality control measures to ensure all content is legally safe and secure for you.

  3. Check for any necessary model or property release if the submitted content features any recognizable model or property.

About stock content licenses

There are three types of licenses available for all copyrighted works: Royalty-Free, Rights-Managed and Creative Commons.

Let’s get into the details.

  • Royalty-Free: A common misconception about royalty-free content is that people think it is free content. That’s not true. Royalty-free content is not free content! Royalty-free content means that you will have to pay for the initial license once, then you can use it forever.

Not to throw more technicalities on you, but there are two types of Royalty-Free license:

  • Standard license

  • Extended license

  • Rights-Managed: This license works in a ‘pay-per-use’ style. You’ll pay a different amount depending on many factors like the type of usage (advertising, print, marketing collateral etc) and the type of media (TV, print, online).

The rates can also change based on how much circulation the copyrighted content will be getting, how long the content will be used for, or varies in different regions or countries too!

  • Creative Commons: This is probably something that sounds more familiar to most people. Yes, a Creative Commons license means that everyone from individual creators to large institutions are granted permission to use the content for as long as they comply with the terms and conditions.

Are there any content that I can legally use for free?

Absolutely! This is where stock content listed as ‘Public Domain’ comes in.

What is considered Public Domain, you ask?

  • Works released by governments

  • Works donated by content creators

  • Works where the term of copyright has expired

  • Works created before the implementation of copyright law

Stock content under the Public Domain is free to download and free to use. However, the catch is that although the work may be free to use, it is not free of authorship and ownership.

Meaning, you may use them as you like. But you may want to look into privacy and publicity rights if you intend to use the content for commercial purposes.

We hope this has been helpful to you in understanding copyright and stock content licenses.

123RF is a royalty-free digital media library that offers a wide variety of budget-friendly commercial and editorial images, video footage, audio clips and vector illustrations. From its humble beginnings in 2005, 123RF is now one of the top global providers of content.

If you ever find yourself in need to use stock content, you can always depend on 123RF. Whenever you license any content from 123RF, we will provide you with $25,000 legal indemnity.

Please speak to us if you need more information or have any questions on copyright and our content by sending an email to

bottom of page