Can you use any image found online? Let’s talk about copyright

Copyright is a complex topic. Some people think that any image on the internet is free for the taking, but that’s not correct. 

Not all images on the internet are available for commercial use. Even if you find images and are able to download them, you may not be permitted to use them for commercial purposes.

There are several terms you should know about when you start looking for images for your book:

  • Commercial use
  • Public domain
  • Free licences
  • Copyright
  • Licencing terms

Commercial use

If you are going to use the images in a project with a for-profit purpose, that needs a commercial licence. Whether or not you actually sell enough copies of your book to make a profit doesn’t matter, as the project itself is potentially profitable and it’s not solely for personal use.

So now that you know that not everything on the internet is available for commercial use, where do you start?

Public domain

You can look for public domain images. Those are images that are not copyrighted and there is no restriction on their use. You can use them in any personal or commercial project. 

Free licences

This means you can use the image but may have to cite it. One example is Creative Commons. You may see images with attributions such as CC-BY-SA. You can use those images, and even modify some of them, as long as you provide the correct attribution.


Unless a creator specifically identifies a free licence or releases their work into the public domain, it is copyrighted. Using a copyrighted image without permission is a violation of copyright law.

When can I use a copyrighted image?

If you found an image online and know who created the image, you can contact them and ask for permission. They may have terms of use or citation requirements, but it doesn’t hurt to ask! 

If you don’t know who created the image and it doesn’t state that it’s in the public domain, you can’t use it without likely violating copyright laws.

Licencing terms

If the image is not in the public domain, there will be licencing terms. These stipulate when, where, and how you may use the image. It’s important to pay attention to those terms.

When I work with clients, our contract specifies specific terms of usage and copyrights.

Where can I find maps for my book?

You can find many images and maps on stock image sites for purchase at lower cost than commissioning a custom map. But pay attention to the licencing terms of your purchase. Some are only available for personal, not commercial use. And some charge a different fee for commercial use.

In a newsletter last year I shared some sources for maps, such as digital map collections and some of those stock image sites. Take a look at some of those sites to see if there’s a map that will work for your book.

Need a custom map?

If you can’t find a map that shows what you want in the style you want, it’s time to consider a custom map. My design fees start at $400 for a book map, so if that’s within your budget, contact me to arrange a free consultation. 

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