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I've found an image online, can I use it?

How does copyright affect us?

I often have students ask me about whether they can use a photo or image that they have found online. What are the copyright ‘rules’ around this?

For a lot of students, who just want to practice a skill or technique, this can be a simple answer .... Yes. But for students who want to progress on from these practice images, the question (and it’s answer) gets more complicated.

There are several things to consider:

  • Is there an element that appeals to you?

  • Or colours/textures you would like to practice reproducing?

  • Why do you want to copy the image?

  • Can you provide your own reference images on the subject, such as personal photos or sketches?

A primary factor is deciding if you aren’t abiding by Copyright is how your final image will be used.

Are you going to use it to practice a specific technique or to take an element to explore to develop your own skills? Then you should be okay, as long as it is for your use only.

Is it as a gift for a friend or family? Then you may be okay, although you can be encroaching on 'fair usage', a term used in the US.

But do you hope to sell it? Or give it away free to get people to visit your business or website? If you use your image for personal or commercial gain, then here you hit copyright.

Below is the wonderful resource ‘Can I use that picture’ by

Answer the questions to see if you breach copyright or the fair usage rules.

Take your time, really evaluate your planned usage.

Look at how you can make the image your own.

Could you add your own resources (photos, sketches, etc.) and use the image to inspire rather than copy?

BUT, don’t forget this also works the other way!

If you produce a unique image, then your image is also covered by copyright. You don’t need to register it or do anything else, it’s yours and always will be.

The only time this may not be true is if you post the image on social media, then those sites usually have the right to use it as they wish (check out their Terms and Conditions).

Or you could sell/ pass on the rights to one of your images. This is sometimes done when producing an image for someone else who wants to own the image and use it as they see fit. Think carefully about selling or giving the rights to one of your images. But don’t assume that because you have produced an image for someone it’s theirs to use, it’s not! It is still yours and they are bound by copyright. Think about writing/getting an agreement or contract for usage.

If you are grappling with this sort of copyright and contract issues, don’t panic. Remember, just how lucky you are to have to worry about this!!

You’re obviously doing something right!


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