This is a legal question and I want to know if I can continue the way I work in a commercial environment. This is not about if I can blatantly take images from the web and use them as they are.

What I do is mostly icons and iconographic imagery where in the end no one can tell if I used an image that doesn't belong to me as a starting point.

Here is an example.

Comparison of original and derived image

See, technically I stole.

I'd like to know if this is perfectly okay and counts as a new work or if it's sort-of okay because I might not get into legal trouble. Or maybe I should be really careful.

I actually don't know.

  • 2
    As the answers outline in the question that e100 posted, this is a pretty big grey area. With the image you posted, nobody would realistically ever be able to identify that you used their image as a starting point. Use your best discretion, but it's best to protect yourself. For the image you posted, I'm sure you could have easily taken that photo yourself and produced the same result. For some reading on when this has been a real issue for someone, see here
    – JohnB
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 15:11
  • 1
    See also this question about basing images on medical illustrations - it's similar to your case because, like an illustration of a bone, a photo of a USB cord contains elements that are copyrightable (features of the specific image) and elements that aren't (the shape of a USB cord). Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 10:42

3 Answers 3


To put it simple: If you use (part of) an existing image that isn't royalty-free, then no, you may not use it. Doing so may result in a 'fine'. It's not like Johannes says either, it doesn't matter how close it resembles any other picture of the same object.

However. Although you may officially not use a picture you got from some random site, it doesn't mean you can't actually use it. In the sample you provided, there is no way anyone can see which photo was used for it. Especially here, because it's a standard USB cable of which there are tons of similar photos. As long as no one can evidently see you took a specific picture for use in your icons/mockups/sites/whatever, you can use it without getting in trouble.

One small tip though: some/most stock image sites make their money mostly by sending 'invoices' to site owners who use one of their pictures. If you use any non-Royalty Free stock images, make sure you cannot see that that specific image was used for your creation.

  • 1
    "Some/most stock image sites make their money mostly by sending 'invoices' to site owners who use one of their pictures." - citation would be nice, this just sounds like a conspiracy theory...
    – Brendan
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 19:46
  • It may result in a lawsuit...not a fine.
    – DA01
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 21:29
  • That may differ per country. I experienced one time that a sports club got an invoice of about € 600, from GetyImages, because their website used a stockphoto from them. This was in the Netherlands. GetyImages is an international company, based in Ireland if I'm not mistaken.
    – paddotk
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 14:08
  • Of course you could make a lawsuit out of this, but it would cost you more than those 600 euro's.
    – paddotk
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 14:10

I suggest you search Flickr instead, where you can filter pictures by their copyright status. http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/

The example you gave is a borderline case in the sense that while it is probably illegal to re-use it, nobody would notice or care. There are millions of identical-looking cables, and after you've finished retouching it, nobody would even be able to tell which one you used.

  • 1
    I'm just going to hop on here and recommend foter.com as a tool for searching for Creative Commons-licensed imagery. It pulls content from flickr among other sites.
    – gburning
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 20:48

Ask yourself these questions:

1) Is this picture unique? Can you go take it yourself?

2) Is it very common? If you look it up, do you find thousands of images from varying angles or just a handful?

This picture you provided is incredibly commonplace and just about everyone owns one of these cables and can easily take a picture of one of these things. That means you could easily make this picture yourself and avoid stealing it, which is what you should do.

As has been mentioned, caution should always be exercised when you're unsure if you can use an image - you should obtain permission to use the image if at all possible..

Also it doesn't hurt to check what sort of license may be associated with an image (if possible), you may even find that an image you need is public domain.

  • 1
    No no no. The picture doesn't have to look 'unique' to be copyrighted. Don't give such wrong advise that may cost the OP a fine later on.
    – paddotk
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 9:49
  • 1
    I had worded my answer very carelessly. I have changed it to better reflect what I meant. I apologize.
    – Hanna
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 19:28

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