Without some form of art a website is less engaging. Simply adding a photo or video background to a page can help you tell your story with fewer words. A picture truly is worth a thousand words. And although you can right click on any image on the Web, save a copy to your local computer and then upload it to your site. That may not be in your best interest.
To be safe you should consider all graphics (vector, bitmap, photo or video) copyrighted with rights assigned to the original author for an extensive period of time. For more details on US copyright law check out the Wikipedia article.
Because you don’t want to get a cease and desist letter from an Attorney it’s a good practice to make sure that any image you plan to use on your site is not protected by copyright. Unless you’re the original author it’s not always easy to know if a piece of art has a copyright or not. Most, but not all, copyrighted images includes a copyright symbol and a date (©2017). If you want to use a copyrighted image, you will need to seek permission from the copyright owner. Some authors will not want their work to be reused. While others will grant a license to use the copyrighted images for a fee or attribution. Sites like Getty Images provides millions of copyright images for purchase. It’s a great source for high quality images and the source we used when we built the original Webcelerate and iStrata sites (RIP).
But you don’t have to pay for high quality images. With the explosion of digital photography there are vast amounts of high quality images available on the web under the Creative Commons license, or that are completely royalty free. The very first site I built for Apple (circa 1994) used non copyrighted royalty free images (nebulas) from NASA.
So What Does Creative Commons Mean?
To you, and to most people, Creative Commons is probably synonymous with free media like photos, sound, and video. However, Creative Commons is itself a copyright license providing varying levels of freedom to the licensed media.
There are two attributions to look out for if you’re using images for business needs. These include Non Commercial (NC), which means not used for business intentions, and No Derivative Works (ND), which permits only the original work to be utilized. Another license with limited requirements is CC BY, which means users can edit the work and use it for commercial benefit as long as attribution to the original work is followed. To ensure the media you wish to use is not restricted in any way, confirm the license is a CC, which waives all rights of the creator in the public domain.
For more info on Creative Commons, check out their FAQ.
Also take a look at this blog post about how to correctly attribute Creative Commons licensed works.
What Does Royalty Free Mean?
Royalty free means the media may be used without paying royalty charges or a license fee for each use. But you might still have to pay a one time fee to obtain the image. Please note that with a royalty free image, the owner still retains the copyright.
The US Government
Most images are protected by copyright and cannot be reproduced without permission from the copyright owner. One exception are the U.S. Government images, which generally are in the public domain and free from copyright. The U.S. government Library of Congress has a list of sites with images from sources such as the National Archives and NASA.
unsplash.com. The site provides beautiful, free photos. Gifted by the world’s most generous community of photographers. Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash. Many of the images used on the current NetGate site are from Unsplash.
Pictures from Old Books
fromoldbooks.org. A site with images from books that pre date copyright law. You are free to use anything on their site on your own site.