Why you shouldn’t use Google Images: Understanding Copyright

Copyright refers to the exclusive rights given to the creator of an original work (art, photo, writing, song, etc) that includes the rights to reproduce the work, adapt the work, communicate the work or sell the work. This can include, but is not limited to, performing songs, playing a recording a song in a public place, photocopying documents, photocopying song lyrics, re-writing something by hand, publishing something on your website or Facebook page, displaying photos in church and altering a design or photo for use on presentations or brochures. Copyright is automatic, and still applies even if the creator of the work hasn’t stated that it is copyrighted.

So how does this apply to images you find on Google?

Understanding copyright for churches

Google provides a search engine to find content and other media on the web. The images you find on Google Images are not actually owned by Google – They are owned by the original creator.

In some situations, even the websites owners where the images are located may not have the right to use them, so you should never assume they do. Even in cases where they do, this does not give you permission to use them also. Websites may have purchased these images on a one-off royalty-free licence from websites such as Dreamstime or Shutterstock, or may have been granted permission from the owner of the work for the purpose in which it has been used.

Crediting or giving attribution to the creator of the work doesn’t necessarily indemnify you, and just because an image or document doesn’t have a watermark doesn’t mean it’s free for you to use. In saying that, I’ve seen churches use images that still have a visible watermark on them – this is the biggest no-no, because you are basically advertising to the world that you have stolen the image!

This is an example of a watermarked image from my own portfolio. If I wasn’t the creator, I wouldn’t be allowed to use this image in this post.


Copyright on Facebook

Another common misconception concerns the use of photos and videos on Facebook. As much as any other web-based service, when you post something on Facebook, you are essentially “publishing” it, and if you did not create it then you require permission to publish it.

According to the Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, you agree that you own all of the content and information that you post on Facebook, and you are granting Facebook a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use it. This means that once a photo or video is posted on Facebook, the owner is giving Facebook and Facebook users the right to repost and share the content WITHIN Facebook. You cannot take an image from a Facebook page and repost it on another website or social media platform. Sharing and reposting comments from others assumes that the original creator gave permission in the first place. Unless you can trace the image back to it’s original source, you cannot say for certain that the owner was the one to provide the image to Facebook. Facebook’s Terms of Service indemnifies Facebook if the Copyright owner chooses to sue, however it doesn’t indemnify others who have shared the content. In my opinion, it’s unlikely that individuals would be sued, but technically you could be, so is it worth the risk?


Being a church does not exclude you from these obligations.

According to the Australian Copyright Council, “There are no general provisions in the Copyright Act allowing churches to use copyright material without the copyright owner’s permission. Under copyright law, churches and other religious organisations are in the same position as non-profit organisations, companies, local councils and individuals. Unless they can rely on a special exception, all of these users need permission to use the material in the ways reserved to the copyright owner.”

The good news is, that in some cases, you may find that churches will be able to use a “non-commercial” licence, as long as the end product is not used to make a profit (for example, a CD sale, curriculum or product you intend to sell). This may depend on the copyright laws in your country and on your individual circumstances, so it is best to either err on the side of caution and always use a commercial licence, or seek legal advice.

Copyright for churches

What kind of licence do we need?

There are a number of different types of licences you can get for music, images and videos.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons licences allow creators to share their work on flexible terms while retaining control of the copyright. Each licence grants certain permissions to users if they comply with the conditions of the licence. This covers attribution, commercial or non commercial use, whether derivative works are allowed, and conditions of sharing derivative works.

For more information on the Creative Commons and an explanation of each of the licences, visit the Creative Commons Website.


There are a number of websites that allow you to purchase images, audio, videos, etc. for commercial use through a website subscription or one-off payment. This includes websites such as Dreamstime, Shutterstock, Fotolia, 123RF, etc. These products can cost as little as 25 cents, and you don’t need to credit the author or link back to the website. There are still some limitations to the licenses so you should read the terms and conditions on each website.

You can find a number of royalty-free websites in our article: Top 50 websites for free church videos and graphics

Public domain

Copyright does eventually expire. In most cases, copyright lasts until 70 years from the end of the year of the creator’s death or 70 years from the end of the year that the work was first published. The Australian Copyright Council provides detailed information on how to work out the duration of copyright on their website. Once copyright expires, you can use the work without permission. These works are often referred to as “Public Domain”.

You can find a large collection of Public Domain resources at archive.org


CCLI stands for Christian Copyright Licensing International. It provides churches, organisations and individuals with affordable licences that allow them to use content without breaching copyright. More than 24,000 churches are taking advantage of the licences from CCLI.

The available licenses include:

You can find out more about CCLI and Copyright on the CCLI Website.

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Model Releases

Separate to copyright, you can also find yourself in trouble if you don’t have permission from the people IN the photos or videos. This permission can be provided via a model release. You can get a sample model release from most stock websites. Getty Images provide a good example of a release on their contributor website.

A media and photo policy should be established within the church so leaders/staff and the congregation are aware of what photos can be taken and how they will be used. Many churches have registration forms for their congregation or event delegates with a tick box giving permission for photos to be used. This is a great idea; however, it is important to seek legal advice as to whether the form contains enough information to stand up in court. Most model releases from stock agencies require (as a minimum): name, contact details, signature, photographer name, and the date of event/photo, so while a registration form might be sufficient permission at an event that runs over a few specific days, the same form might not be enough to protect you legally for photos on a normal Sunday service during the year.


Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to consider when choosing content for your church and website. I hope this article has been useful, and here’s some tips to summarise:

  1. Never assume content is free to use
  2. Use your own content where possible
  3. Use content that comes with a licence – Creative Commons, Royalty Free, CCLI etc.
  4. Familiarise yourself with the restrictions of your licences
  5. Get model releases from any recognisable people in your content


Further Reading

Wikipedia on Copyright

The Australian Copyright Council

U.S. Copyright Office


Disclaimer: The content of this article is for general information purposes only. It should not be relied upon as legal advice.

Sarah Clark

I'm a freelance graphic designer, church volunteer and first time mum with a passion for bringing a new level of creativity into churches through inspiring leaders and providing resources. My goal is to be able to self-fund my ministry goals through my freelance projects while being able to work from home and be a full-time mum, and I want to help others do the same.

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