ArcGIS StoryMaps

Stick to the rules: How to properly find and use images in your stories

Story maps often use lots of photos and images. These typically set a story apart as memorable, interesting, and effective. While in the midst of creating a compelling story, it may seem logical to add some appeal or fill in gaps by quickly pulling a few images off the web. Easy? Yes. Legal? Probably not, but it depends.



Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works. Copyright gives the owner of a work (for example, a book, movie, photo, image, song or website) the right to say how other people can use it. Copyright laws make it easier for authors to make money by selling their works. With a copyright, a work can only be used if the owner gives permission.

Photos and images that you might want to use in your stories fall under the same protections. The copyright begins at the moment the photo is captured or image is created. The copyright holder of a photo has several exclusive rights:

What is copyright infringement?

Copyright infringement (often referred to as piracy) is the use of works protected by copyright law without permission. It is a widely held misconception that photos on the Internet are not covered by copyright and thus can be used freely. However, that is not true.

If you use someone else’s work, you could be liable for what is called “copyright infringement.” Basically, copyright infringement exists if you exercise one or more of the exclusive rights held by a copyright owner. Just because the image has been found on the web, Facebook, Instagram, or any other source does not mean that it does not fall under copyright.

Another misconception is that photos you find on the Internet are ok to use under “fair use” if you provide attribution and/or a link to the original. The doctrine of fair use holds that copyrighted work can be used in certain cases, but not all.

How do I know if a photo or image is copyrighted?

It’s safest to assume that every image you see online is copyrighted, with exceptions that will be noted later. U.S. law no longer requires the use of a copyright notice, so the © does not need to be visible for an author to copyright a work. Any original work should be assumed to be copyrighted, unless clearly marked otherwise.

Using copyrighted photos and images

To use a copyrighted photo you must ask and receive the author’s permission or obtain a license to use the image. Obtaining a license gives you the right to use the photo in any way prescribed by the licensing agreement. Obtaining a license to use a copyrighted image does not always mean that payment a will be required. Permission in writing is a must, but in some cases can be as simple as an email.


Social media and copyright

Copyright law also applies to to photos and images you find on social media. The person who creates a photo and uploads it to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and other social sites retains the copyright. If you want to use an image found on social media, you must get permission in writing (email, tweet, text).  Once given permission to use the image, you should provide proper attribution by adding the person’s full name plus a link to their profile, website, or blog.


Where can I find photos to use in my stories?

Most story authors will want to avoid the potential costs and red tape associated with copyrighted images. There are many different alternatives that you can leverage to find photos and images that you can use freely in your stories, though some licenses limit some uses and require proper attribution. Here are a few options, but always check the license details as terms of use are subject to change.

Public domain

Public Domain images are not copyrighted. Content is added to the public domain when copyright holders release their work into the public domain, a copyright expires, or copyright exempt work (e.g. Federal government projects) is created. In these cases the public owns the work and not an individual artist or author.

U.S. government creative works are usually authored by government employees as part of their official duties. A government work is generally not subject to copyright laws unless the work falls under an exception. See U.S. Government Works for more information.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons falls between public domain and all rights reserved. The Creative Commons license gives photographers the ability to release their photos to the public, while still retaining some control over how they are used. All photos with a Creative Commons license fall into two main categories; Those that allow commercial use, and those that don’t.

Commercial use is defined as use that is “primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary compensation” whether directly or indirectly. If you are a private company using stories to highlight your capabilities or promote your products and services the use is commercial. However, even non-profits may fall under the commercial category. Therefore, it’s always best to stick with Creative Commons commercial use licensing.

All Creative Commons licensing, except the public domain license, requires crediting the author by following posted instructions. The instructions detail how to meet the requirements for attribution, including links, and often provide sample links and examples for you to follow. The commercial use Creative Commons licenses are as follows:

Public Domain – CC0

Creative Commons

CC0 enables creators and owners of copyright-protected content to waive those interests in their works and place them in the public domain. Users of these works may freely build upon, enhance, and use them for any purposes without restriction under copyright.

Attribution – CC BY


This license lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the author’s work, even commercially. The author must be credited.

Attribution-ShareAlike – CC BY-SA


This license lets you remix, adapt, and build upon the original work, even for commercial purposes. The author must be credited, and if you make derivatives they must be licensed under identical terms.

Attribution-NoDerivs – CC BY-ND


This license lets you use the author’s work for any purpose, including commercial uses. The author must be credited. No changes to the original are permitted to share with others.

For more information about these, and other Creative Commons licenses, see the Creative Commons license details.

Use your own images

Another option is to use your own photos. You own the photos, so there isn’t a possibility for any infringement.

Public copyright-free websites

There are number of copyright-free websites where vast collections of high-quality photos can be obtained for use in your stories. Images obtained from these websites can be used for free for both commercial and personal uses. However, it’s always a good idea to check the site terms and licensing before using any images. While attribution is not a requirement, it’s always a good idea and a courtesy to the artist to include their name and link to the source.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons is a media repository that is created and maintained by volunteers. It provides a central repository for freely licensed photographs, diagrams, animations, music, spoken text, video clips, and media of all sorts. You are allowed to copy, use and modify any files freely as long as they follow the terms specified by the author. Often the terms require crediting the source and author(s) appropriately, with the license conditions of each individual media file available on their description page.

Unsplash was founded in 2013 and contains a vast collection of curated images. It was one of the pioneering sites to offer royalty free images. Images are licensed under the Unsplash license which is similar to the CC0 license, but additionally restricts downloading content to build competing sites.

Pixabay was formed and is run by a community of photographers. The site has free photos and a variety of other media offered under the CC0 license.

Flickr Commons
Flickr Commons assembles public domain images from a variety of participating institutions. Each contributing institution has determined that the images provided have no known copyright restrictions.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with millions of books, recordings, photographs, newspapers, maps and manuscripts in its collections. The Library includes a public domain portal of interesting images that you can use in your stories.

The Smithsonian Open Access Portal offers millions of public domain photos available for any use from across the Smithsonian’s museums, research centers, archives, libraries, and more.

And more
You’ll find lots of other alternatives via search. Make sure you read the licensing terms for other sites, as well as the terms for individual photos.



There are many easy ways to ensure that you avoid copyright infringement when seeking photos and images to enhance your stories. Some tips that you should consider:

This article includes contributions made by Lynnae Terpstra and Cecilia Dinh.

This article was originally published on June 22, 2015, and has been updated.

About the author

Corporate technology evangelist and advocate at Esri, focusing on ways to broaden access to geographic information and helping customers succeed with the ArcGIS system. On a good day I'm making a map, on a great day I'm on one. Email or connect on LinkedIn (


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