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Clip art tips: using and purchasing stock art

Copyright protects many stock images and other types of clip art. That is to say, copyright gives the creator of an original work complete control over its use and distribution. The first of our Clip Art Tips: Get permission to use any work that is copyrighted.

What you need to know about services that sell or give away photos, illustrations, and videos

Clip Art sample from Pexels
Photo by Anthony from Pexels

Do you use stock images and clip art? If you do, then it’s important to understand the differences between image license types: Royalty-Free, Rights-Managed, Public Domain and Creative Commons. Whether you’re looking for illustrations, photos, audio, or video files, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with theses terms to ensure that you don’t inadvertently use copyrighted material without permission.


Purchasing a royalty-free image generally means that you are free to use it in perpetuity without paying additional royalty charges above the purchase price. Generally speaking, in this scenario the licensor retains all copyright to the original content.

Some licensors allow reselling of items that include that content, such as a calendar or t-shirt, and others do not, so research terms and conditions before you purchase any image. The biggest drawback of using a Royalty-Free Image is you won’t know where else it has been used.


Rights-Managed Images typically allow the buyer to use the content only in very specific ways. For instance, restrictions include period of time used, number of pieces printed, geographic region, industry, and publication size.

Creative commons

Creative Commons (CC) licenses enable free distribution of work that is otherwise copyrighted. In this case, the author wants other people to share, use, and build upon his or her work.

Public domain

On the other hand, creative works to which no intellectual property rights apply are considered to be in the public domain. There are many reasons for this. For some, rights may have expired. For others, rights may have been forfeited or waived.

Where to find free and low cost high quality stock photos and illustrations

There are thousands of websites offering art for free and for purchase. The second of our clip art tips is: Where to find the best images at a good price. We recommend our favorite sources for stock photos and illustrations below:

Low cost

iStockPhoto: High quality stock photos, illustrations, vectors and video. Photos start at $11 and go up from there. You can buy a single image on demand or sign up for a subscription. Visit their website.

Bigstock: Photos, illustrations and video. Start an account for free, then charge up your account with credits starting from $35 (gets you 10 credits) or with a monthly plan that starts at $79/month and allows you to download up to 5 images per day. Image downloads start at 1 credit. Visit their website.

Shutterstock: Photos, vectors, video, and music. Buy a pack or subscribe. Packs start at $49 for 5 images. In addition, subscriptions start at $29/month with up to 10 images. Visit their website.


Pexels: All photos on Pexels can be used for free for commercial and noncommercial use. Attribution is not required. It is not necessary to give credit to the photographer or Pexels, but it is appreciated. Visit their website.

Unsplash: All photos published on Unsplash are free to use for commercial and noncommercial purposes. You do not need to ask permission from or provide credit to the photographer or Unsplash, although it is appreciated when possible. Visit their website.

What about Google Images?

It is important to understand that Google Images is not a collection of public domain or copyright free works. Just as Google is a search engine, Google Images helps you locate content according to your search criteria. However, once you find a photo or a graphic that you like, it must be treated like any other content you find online. With this in mind, assume that online content is protected by copyright. Then, take the necessary steps to determine its copyright protection.

For more information about finding the creator of the image or copyright information about the work, see Google’s blog post Image Rights Metadata in Google Images.

What is fair use?

Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances. Section 107 of the Copyright Act provides the statutory framework for determining whether something is a fair use and identifies certain types of uses—such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research—as examples of activities that may qualify as fair use. 


Using disclaimer or giving attribution does not give you the right to use an image. There is no single way to immediately tell if an image is copyrighted. However, there are some tell-tale signs.

  1. Watermarks or copyright symbol
  2. It’s not yours. At the creation of an image, the work has immediately become copyrighted and the owner is the sole person with a legal right to distribute, replicate, or display it.
  3. Do a reverse image search on Google

What happens if you are caught using copyrighted material?

If you are caught using copyrighted material, you may have to pay civil damages and legal fees. This article in the Houston Chronicle is a good summary.

Why does it matter?

Unless you’re a photographer or graphic designer creating your own work, chances are you’ll need to use work created and owned by someone else.  But not to worry. There are plenty of sources of good, professional clip art, photos, and illustrations at affordable prices. 

Stock services like the ones listed above allow people to see and share images. Stock photo services, creative commons licenses and public domain repositories are not subject to fair use. This is due to the rights they carry. Consequently, there’s no excuse for using someone else’s intellectual property without compensation.

Final note about our clip art tips

We are not lawyers. For that reason, if you have any concerns that you may be infringing on copyright, we recommend you consult with an attorney well versed in copyright law.

We hope you have found this Clip Art Tips article helpful. Learn about our graphic design services. Additionally, we can work on your design project from beginning to end, or we can help you source individual images.

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