Can I Use This Image In My Social Marketing? Understanding Image Copyrights

How many times have you written the perfect social media post, then thought you need a matching image to bring your post over the top to ensure you get the engagement the post deserves? An eye-catching image that will make people stop and pay attention to what you have to say? Visual content has emerged as a required asset when posting on social media nowadays, especially when you consider stats like these:

  • On Twitter, tweets with images receive 150% more retweets than tweets without images.
  • On Facebook, posts with images see 2.3X more engagement than posts without images. 
  • People following directions with text and illustrations do a whopping 323% better than those following directions without illustrations.

So what do you do? Like many people, you might do a quick Google search for images based on whatever keyword your post is about, and bam!, you find the perfect image to help convey your message at an even deeper level. However, there's only one problem: Without understanding image copyrights, you don't know if you're entitled to actually use that image in your social media post.

There can be some pretty serious consequences for using copyright protected images. Just ask this person who had to pay $4,000 for a $10 photo, or this person who was sued for $8,000. It's well worth taking the next few minutes to read this blog to fully understand image copyrights, so you don't end up in a situation that costs you thousands of dollars. Here's what you need to know the next time you want to use an image in your social marketing:

Defining Image Copyrights

Per Merriam-Webster, the definition of copyright is "the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (such as a literary, musical, or artistic work)." No doubt, image copyrights can be frustrating, but it is designed to protect everyone, you included. When you produce original work, you surely don't want anyone stealing it and presenting it as their own without any credit to you, hence the need for image copyrights.

Image copyright is automatic - there is nothing you need to do to copyright your work, although you will see the universal © symbol on many images as an added way of telling people "this image is mine". Image copyrights mean no one else can use that image without your permission. In the United States, per section 106 of the Copyright Law, no one else can reproduce the work, prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work, distribute the work, or display the work. 

Simply sharing an image on social media without first asking for permission could put you in breach of that person's image copyrights. However, at least in the United States, unless that person has registered the image with the U.S. Copyright Office, they would not be able to sue for copyright infringement. 

Understanding Fair Use

Per Stanford University, the definition of fair use is "in its most general sense, a fair use is any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and “transformative” purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work." Fair use is, in essence, an exception to copyright law enabling someone to use copyrighted work without permission.

Fair use is a tricky subject and one that often ends up in court to decide what actually qualifies as fair use. What qualifies as fair use generally falls into two categories: commentary and criticism and parody. For example, perhaps you are writing a book review. In that instance, you are entitled to use some of the copyrighted work from the book to help with your review. With a parody, for example, being you are comically poking fun at the original copyrighted work, you have quite a bit of leeway to use the original work in your parody.

How does fair use apply to image copyrights? Well, it's quite difficult to find a situation where you can actually apply fair use. As noted with the above examples, only pieces of the original copyrighted work are being included in say, the book review or parody. In most cases, you aren't going to only share a partial image, you are going to share the entire image, so fair use is unlikely to apply to using images in your social marketing.

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Check Out The Image Copyright Rules For Your Social Media Platform

Each social media platform you use is going to have its own rules on image copyrights, so be sure to check those rules out before you post, as well. Social media platforms nowadays have taken big steps to protect both themselves and their users in regards to image copyrights and often have extensive rules sections on this subject. Here are links to copyright rules for most popular social media networks:

Social Media Examiner gives a good example of how you could get in trouble for image copyrights infringement on Pinterest. While it's perfectly okay to repin other images on Pinterest, you can't copy those images to another platform. And you can't pin content on Pinterest without the permission of the original author. For example, if you're reading a blog and want to pin an image from that blog, first check to see if the person who wrote the blog and the image itself is already on Pinterest, or get permission from the person who wrote the blog to pin the image, otherwise you could be committing copyright infringement.

Pinterest Image Copyright Rules

Using Creative Commons Images

Creative Commons is a system that enables you to share your creative work for others to freely use, while still being able to maintain a certain level of control over it. For example, you can specify whether you will allow adaptations of your work, or if commercial use is allowed, or if an attribution is required. Creative Commons works with many popular platforms, such as Flickr, Wikipedia, YouTube, Vimeo, and Bandcamp, with over 1 billion works shared through the system to date. Check out this video for a quick visual explanation of Creative Commons and what they do:

When you're browsing the platforms that Creative Commons works with looking for images to use, you need to keep an eye out for certain icons. For example, Flickr has a page on their website dedicated to Creative Commons and they section off the images based on the license attached to them (with the first icon, you need to give an attribution to the original author when using the image): 

Flickr Creative Commons 

Finding Free Images To Use In Your Social Marketing


Pixabay has over 1,000,000 free high-quality images you can choose from to use in your social marketing. All images are free of copyrights under Creative Commons, can be used in commercial applications, and attribution is not required. Pixabay is even integrated directly into Social Report, so you can choose an image as you are scheduling your posts!

Pixabay Royalty Free Images


Unsplash has over 200,000 free high-resolution images you can use in your social marketing. These images are brought to you by awesome photographers and you are free to do whatever you want with them. That includes using them in both non-commercial and commercial applications, without a need to provide attribution, as well as being able to modify the images. 

Unsplash Royalty Free Images


Pexels has a huge selection of royalty free high-quality images you can use in your social marketing. As with Pixabay and Unsplash, thanks to Creative Common, these images can be used in commercial applications and no attribution is required. In addition to social marketing, feel free to use them in blogs, websites, apps, and more. 

Pexels Royalty Free Images 

Google Image Search

Did you know you could find images to use in your social marketing on Google? After you have performed your image search, click on "Tools" then "Usage Rights" to select the option that meets your needs. For example, you can search for images that you can reuse, or images that you can reuse with modification, and more. If you are using Google image search to look for images to use in your social marketing, make sure you always use the "Usage Rights" so you don't infringe on anyone's image copyrights.

Using Google Image Search To Find Free Images