Using google images you can find any image you want these days, even high resolution. The question is how do I know what I can use image wise in the graphic design work assuming that the graphic work is for non profit use?

For example, I want to use Garfield comic strip, a portrait of Mark Twain, a book cover of some novel. Are any of these things restricted or can I use them without seeking permissions? And do I have to even seek for permission?

Any help or good read is highly appreciated.

  • 1
    "How do I know what I can use" I'm not trying to be mean, but doesn't this seem kinda obvious? How does one get to know anything in general? "Oh, but officer, no one told me that this Mona Lisa painting is not mine, so I took it"
    – Joonas
    Apr 24, 2012 at 21:54
  • 1
    @DA01 answer made me think about my comment and i felt like I needed to explain it a bit., My short rant/mentioning of mona lisa was to point out that you can't asume something to be yours/free to use just because it is out there to be taken/used.
    – Joonas
    Apr 24, 2012 at 23:03

4 Answers 4


All images - everything you see - is copyrighted. Google images is not a viable search method for images to reuse.

If you want to reuse images, especially those of known origin, such as Garfield, you must contact the creator and ask permission. Often permission comes with a fee.

  • 8
    Actually, if you use the Creative Common search plugin, it allows you to search Google Images, Flickr, and other mixed sources for images that are explicitly taggeed as CC (or possibly other copyleft licensing). It also allows you to specify which CC license you want to search for (i.e. non-commercial + attribution, non-commercial, attribution only, or commercial + no-attribution). Apr 24, 2012 at 22:02
  • There are exceptions, though. (See my answer).
    – DA01
    Apr 24, 2012 at 22:47
  • 1
    Anyone using Google images for finding images for reproduction should really follow the rule that EVERYTHING is copyrighted. I realize there are exceptions, but based on the question and how it's worded it's clear that it would be far better to err on teh side of caution in my opinion.
    – Scott
    Apr 24, 2012 at 22:58
  • I'm not suggesting that anyone use Google Image search normally to find assets for reproduction. I'm just saying that Google Images does have a way to filter for just CC images. If you're using these filters, then you already know that these are safe images and wouldn't be asking this question. So the questioner obviously isn't using such a filter, in which case, probably over 99% of the images are going to be non-CC, and it's pointless to search in this fashion. Apr 24, 2012 at 23:10
  • It's probably a good idea to assume it's copyrighted rather than not, but it's not a rule. If you're looking for free images, add "free" to your search term and you can often find plenty.
    – DA01
    Apr 24, 2012 at 23:59

Scott is partially correct. All images are, by default, copyrighted in the United States, unless...

  • otherwise noted, or...
  • the copyright has expired

There are many additional exceptions as well. Lese mentioned one: Creative Commons licensing. One can also put something in the public domain, or open source it.

Copyrights also expire, though the media industry in the US is constantly trying to stop that. For instance, the Mona Lisa is not copyrighted. Where it gets confusing is that a photo of the Mona Lisa is copyrighted--even if the subject matter isn't.

As for what you can use, whether you or your client is a for-profit vs. non-profit entity is irrelevant. If it's commercial work, you need to clear copyrights to be within the law.

Again, though, there are exceptions. Fair use being the big one. What constitutes fair use, however, is also under fire from the media industries, so that's a crapshoot as well.

Sadly, copyright law can be a murky mess of rules and lawsuits.

NOTE: that the above pertains to US Intellectual Property law. It's a big planet with lots of laws so things may very well vary greatly in your neck of the woods.

  • 3
    (Re Note) In the European Union there is no such thing as Fair Use. There are regulated exceptions, the principal ones being reproduction for the purposes of critique, or incidental reproduction (eg showing artwork in the background of a portrait). It's also not possible to "put something into the public domain": while it is current, copyright is inalienable, but it might not be enforced. Apr 24, 2012 at 22:52

If the authorship and terms/conditions for permission are unclear - then you don't have permission, it's as simple as that.

There are multiple specific cases when you can use content made by others - public domain, explicit permission, expired copyright, etc; however, it's your responsibility to find out which of that applies (or doesn't apply) for each particular item. 'Non-profit use' as such doesn't change anything here. If you're not asking the author of each work, at the very least you'd be looking for an explicit statement accompanying each image that authorises you to use it, and if there isn't one, then the default rules are 'look but don't reuse'.

A particular problem is orphan works - those that are made recently enough for the copyright to be valid, but where you can't find the author. In such cases there is no way at all to use that work legally even if you'd be willing to pay quite a lot for the licence.


I would like to point out Copyleft and Project Gutenberg as sources of content that are considered public domain, usually under Creative Commons licensing.

Wikipedia on Copyleft.

Copyrights from Project Gutenberg

Apart from sources like this, content explicitly marked as free-use, never assume and never use.

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