careful with online course images
Photo by Muhammad Daudy on Unsplash

Use Care When Searching For Course Images

This lesson will help online course teachers who don’t know much about sourcing photos learn about their options and avoid common business and legal traps.

Knowing about image rights is great for people that:

  • Don’t know about copyrights and trademarks
  • May not be skilled with photography terms
  • Think that royalty-free always means free for any use
  • Aren’t trained with licenses and terms
  • Don’t know about attribution
  • May not have a big budget to create high-end looks
  • Are using contractors but aren’t sure how they get their images

This article will help online course teachers that create slides, resources, articles, ads, and more.

You’ll also learn how to leverage high-quality art without blowing your budget and getting in trouble.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Images You Find In A Web Search

You can’t just search for images on the internet and use them. There are a variety of laws that protect photos and images on the internet.

Companies use robots to scan for unlicensed images. And once they find an unlicensed image that belongs to them, they will send you a bill and even a scary legal cease and desist order to immediately remove their assets.

Oh, and don’t think they can’t detect their original image because you cropped the image, added some text, changed a few colors, or ran the image through a filter – because they can…

Copyright Law

Copyright law protects creators from having their work displayed, stolen, copied, or reproduced without their permission.

The image owner has exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Create derivative works
  • Sell or distribute copies
  • Display the work publically

Copyright law includes works such as 2d, 3d, fine art, graphic arts, photographs, models, charts, illustrations, diagrams, and technical drawings.

Fair Use Ambiguity

In some cases, fair use means that you can use a copyrighted picture for education, personal, research, or if it’s beneficial to the public.

One example of fair use is when review websites use photos or screenshots of products to summarize a product or service without permission.

Determining fair use can sometimes be very complicated and we recommend that online course teachers use royalty-free or licensed content with clear terms of use.


Trademarks provide legal protection for a logo, phrase, word, or design.

So you will want to avoid images that contain obvious trademarks in the picture.

Some examples could be:

  • A photo of someone else’s painting in a museum
  • A photo in a store with store branding all over
  • A photo of you sewing that also includes the logo of the sewing machine

Remember that you may sell or earn revenues from your course lessons, videos, and ebooks. Therefore, you need to own what you sell or have the right to sell every part of your product. You don’t want any gray areas about the income that you earn. You also don’t want to get legally and financially charged with hurting another brand.

Apparently Free Images

There are three types of free images that are important to review because they may not be free to get or to use freely.

Royalty Free

A Royalty Free (RF) image can be used without paying any additional fees to the copyright holder each time the image is used.

Royalty Free images may be free to download or require an upfront payment to buy and license.

Once you acquire a Royalty Free image, you can use it multiple times without extra charges. But there may be limits based on your license.

This can be useful for:

  • Multiple prints of a book or ebook
  • Multiple visits of students to your website
  • Multiple impressions of an ad for your community

Public Domain

When an image belongs to the Public Domain (PD), it means it is not subject to copyright laws.

Public domain images happen when:

  • The owner of the work passes away
  • The owner has abandoned all rights to the work
  • The copyright of an image has expired
  • The image is not copyrightable

Course creators should use caution because there sometimes it isn’t clear if photos are 100% in the public domain.

Creative Commons (CC)

When photos use a Creative Commons license, the copyright owner allows certain uses and distribution.

There are seven types of CC licenses:

  • CC BY
  • CC BY-SA
  • CC BY-NC
  • CC BY-ND
  • CC0 – Public Domain Dedication

For more information visit

Since there are several CC licenses, you need to verify and follow the rules allowed by each image used. It can also start to be a little bit of a management nightmare if you use many CC sources.

Where To Get FREE Royalty Free Images For Courses

My favorite place to get Royalty Free images is It has a giant searchable library of high-quality photos. It’s easy to find, browse, and ultimately download photos. They also make it very easy to see, copy, and download photo source information. You can even search by orientation or color, and sort the results in a variety of ways.

Here are my top sources of Royalty Free images:

Attributions For Course Images

In some cases, you may have to use attribution. And even if you don’t have to, you may want to do it, because it’s the right thing to give that creator credit. Attribution is when you give credit to the photographer or source, with something like Photo by NAME on Service. Sometimes the attribution could even have hyperlinks to the creator’s page or source web page.

Photo of wood sculpture of elderly woman near tree and cabin
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Where To Get Licensed Images For Online Courses

Graphic Services

Sometimes you can get high-quality images that don’t require attribution from graphic services.

For example, you can use free or pro versions of Canva or Vistacreate to create artwork that uses stock imagery. This stock imagery is either free or included as part of your premium plan.


The best quality images are often licensed from premium content providers. These companies provide very high quality, large selections, and unique content.

Unfortunately, these providers can be expensive, and many restrict the number of photos you can access based on price, credits, or monthly plan. Some also charge by the size of the photo using resolution or dots per inch (DPI).

My favorite premium provider is Envato PhotoDune Elements, which offers really great images for about $5. I also really like IconFinder, which has high-quality icons for about $2.

Here are some of the best high-end stock photography companies:

And remember, you will be playing with legal fire if you choose to browse these premium archives and utilize a variation of one of their photos without licensing. FYI: The most fierce is Getty Images.

The best part of licensed images is that you can usually use them without attribution and you can crop, modify, mix, layer text, etc.

Make Your Own Images For Online Courses

In some cases, you may not be able to find the content that you are looking for and may want to just make your own.

Some of the original content you can make include:

  • Photos
  • Sketches
  • Illustrations
  • Diagrams
  • Samples
  • Process Photos

Just be sure to not include potentially copyrighted or trademarked content in your photo, by hiding or blurring product logos.

Cost, Benefit, And Risk Of Images For Your Business

Some assets like the hero image on your course cover are critical and you don’t want to be forced to change it or be limited by free license requirements. In some cases, you also don’t want to use a commonly available picture for your premium course materials.

However other images like blog or community post images can easily use Royalty Free images without devaluing your brand. These Royalty Free images are no/low cost and provide decent secondary media.

It’s usually ok if your post image has been seen before, like a picture of a frustrated student used by many teachers. In fact, most students won’t realize that you sourced your images from stock companies.

But if you really want to aim and pay for original high-quality content, then you should probably license stock photos or make your own content.

As a course developer, you will have to decide which assets require photos that cost more with higher benefits vs costing less with average benefits.

And the same goes for your risk tolerance when you consider using questionable public domain content, photos that contain other trademarks, or unsourced photos found on the web.

Keep Sourcing Notes Of All Your Course Images

You should keep notes of the images you source in your business. Ideally, you have a shared directory accessible by your whole team that has an archive of all images used by your business.

You’ll want to track:

  • The filename of the image as originally downloaded
  • The original unaltered image because it may contain extra metadata
  • Source company like Unsplash so you can look up the license later
  • Employee, vendor, or contractor that found and downloaded the image
  • Attribution information like photographer, optional source URL, and source company
  • Your downloaded txt or pdf license if you paid for the image

You may also want to maintain the original filename or come up with a good file prefix like unsplash_name_modifications_720x300.jpeg as you create derivative works. You can also use a similar prefix for the license and notes file.

  • unsplash-wood-sculpture-lady-jeremy-123.jpg
  • unsplash-wood-sculpture-lady-jeremy-123_300x300-cropped.png
  • unsplash-wood-sculpture-lady-jeremy-123-metadata.txt

Summary of sourcing course images

Getting Course Images Bottom Line

Avoid creating your business assets on quicksand by using free and licensed images appropriately.

Now that you know how to get course images, here is a summary of the key considerations:

  • Don’t just use images you find on the web
  • Read licenses agreements on any free photos to verify the exact terms
  • Use reputable sites for Royalty Free images
  • You can get some good images that don’t need attribution via graphic apps like Canva
  • Prices vary on stock photos, but we really like the price and selection on Envato
  • Consider making your own images if it makes sense
  • Use different cost/quality images across your business like course sales page vs blog
  • Keep track of your images by downloading licenses or attribution text notes

Oh, and if your course business is starting to get complicated, be smart and find a lawyer who specializes in Copyrights, Trademarks, and IP (Intellectual Property).

For more creative teacher help building, operating, and growing your online courses, check out our ArtsyCourseExperts blog and subscribe to our email for regular tips.

More Tips For Online Teachers

The following articles and resources may help you get smarter on using images in your course business.

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