Do You Have to Reference Copyright Free Images?

There is an abundance of royalty-free images available for free or one-time fee license, from public domain sites and image libraries that require subscription or one-off fees.

Before using these photos for commercial, promotional or advertorial design projects, it is crucial that you fully comprehend their licenses. Some may require model or property releases that you do not possess.


Citing is an acknowledgement that you are using someone else’s work. Citing helps prevent plagiarism allegations, which is a serious academic integrity concern. Citations can either be done as footnote or in-text citation; footnote citations should only be used if there isn’t room in text to include all necessary details about an image.

Images with Creative Commons licenses require attribution for usage. If it states this in its license terms, you must include an attribution credit line in your figure note or reference list entry for that image. Alternatively, there are online image databases like Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons with copyright-free images you may use with proper attribution.

At times, an image can be used without authorization if its creator or copyright holder released it into the public domain – this typically applies for works created before January 1, 1924 or published by the U.S. government. However, sometimes royalty payments must still be paid even though an image may have a royalty-free license agreement attached to it.

If you are uncertain if it is necessary to seek permission for using an image or copyrighted work, contact its creator/owner and ask. They should ask what will be the use of their creation/copyright holding and may request you sign a release form which verifies that permission was obtained prior to its usage.

Citing images in text citations requires basic information: the name and source of the work or photograph being referenced. When including MLA Works Cited entries for images, this should follow this format: Author’s Last/First name), Title/Description of Work/Book, Creation or Publication Date (4-digit year), Image Source; additionally it is advised that website addresses be included and linked directly to images if available.


Visuals are an integral component of user experiences when creating content such as blog posts, website pages or ebooks. But it is essential that any image used doesn’t violate copyright – each image gains protection as soon as it is created – regardless of whether or not uploaded onto the Internet.

There are exceptions, and image users are responsible for making sure they use images legally – particularly images not in the public domain or not licensed under Creative Commons terms.

Before using images for commercial (including academic) purposes, most individuals must seek permission from either their owner or representative before reuse. Sometimes compensation may also be requested from copyright holders in some instances; generally this type of permission should be obtained prior to any use in public domain images.

While public domain options are great for academic use, some image creators and copyright holders offer royalty-free licence agreements which enable their images to be freely used for non-commercial use without incurring royalty payments. Such licences are usually indicated with an image metadata inclusion of “CC By 4.0” (or similar) license; you may find such images on Flickr Commons and Wikimedia Commons.

As with all images, it is wise to err on the side of caution when using images. Failure to comply with copyright agreements often incurs substantial financial penalties for individuals or organizations breaching them – penalties which may include court orders to remove infringing material and substantial statutory damages for copyrighted work infringed upon. Furthermore, copyright infringement may even constitute criminal offense in certain countries – thus it’s crucial that you familiarise yourself with their rules before beginning.


If the image belongs to you or has a Creative Commons no attribution required license, it does not need to be included in your reference list or end-text citation. However, it is a good practice to include an attribution under each figure, especially if they have been altered; this ensures readers can track back to its source while showing respect for its creator’s work.

If you are using images from databases requiring licenses (like those offered through Yok University Libraries), make sure that any terms of use or copyright/permissions section has specific attribution requirements; otherwise the general attribution rules for Creative Commons material (CC) apply: “Creator”, “Title”, and “Source” (ideally including full URL of image website) As for further guidance see this guide on attributing Creative Commons materials.

Many stock images and clip art available online fall under either an open copyright, which requires licensing for use, or public domain status. Citing these works follows similar rules to citing any scholarly source. In APA style citation, copyright attribution should be included within your reference list Notes section while figures should also be referenced in text as necessary.

There are various online sites that provide images licensed with various Creative Commons licenses that are freely usable for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Wikimedia Commons – owned by the same organization behind Wikipedia – features an impressive array of images available either under public domain or Creative Commons licenses that allow reuse with certain restrictions; similarly Creative Commons Openverse offers similar search capabilities with images organized according to type of Creative Commons license they have been assigned.

Similar to their visual content, many organisations provide open access to their images – the Smithsonian for instance offers high resolution downloads of some images. When citing these types of works it is usually sufficient to include both an in-text citation and reference list entry.

Fair Use

If you are using images on a website or print publication and are uncertain if their use is legal, one way of finding out would be through “fair use.” This exception to copyright allows limited, noncommercial uses without prior permission – specifically factors like purpose of work used, amount utilized and its similarity to original piece as well as impact on market value may all play a part.

Consider these guidelines when applying this principle: It is wise to avoid taking or uploading images from large photo agencies (or any other source), as these firms usually employ attorneys with expertise in finding copyright violations and are well-funded to defend their rights. Furthermore, if a work is protected by copyright and you violate it without authorization then up to $150,000 could be sued from each image you took without having secured a valid license from its creators.

Search engines such as Google or Bing can quickly inform you if an image falls within the public domain, and if not then contact its creator(s) or their representatives to seek permission for reuse. Also consider visiting ARS (Artists Rights Society), an organisation dedicated to representing visual artists worldwide with intellectual property rights.

For example, when including images in a journal article the following citation should be included: Creator (Last Name First) Title of Article Journal Title Volume Issue Date Pages. Or alternatively the image can be included with a shorter citation such as Creator “Title of Article.” Journal Title Volume (Issue No) Date (Year).

Make sure to research Creative Commons or public domain images or take your own. However, bear in mind that image copyright law differs significantly from written/spoken language copyright laws, making it harder to find images you can legally use than words. Furthermore, Creative Commons licence requirements depend on where your image will be used – hyperlinks usually suffice online while for print resources you must include a full citation.