“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliché, but it’s true.   Nobody wants to read a bunch of text with no images on your church website, Social Media site, or even your printed newsletter.

Hopefully by now all of us know that we cannot photocopy and print music and worship material to use in public worship without obtaining permission and usually licenses.

Unfortunately, many church workers believe images that are online are different and that because it is easy to capture a photo or image online, we are free to use that image however we wish.  This is not true.  Most images that are online are protected by copyright.

What is Copyright?

Copyright law gives the author of any creative work (including images) automatic ownership of their work and the right to decide where it can be re-published.

Note that it is automatic.  If I take a photo and post it on the internet, I automatically own the rights to that photo.  I do not have to fill out any paperwork or apply for copyright.  It is automatic.  If you take my photo and post it on your website, you have broken the law.

Now I’m not going to prosecute you or even sue you if you re-publish my photo.  I might ask you to give me credit.  But that is not true for most artists who publish their work on the internet.  Especially if they are trying to make a living from their craft.

There are companies that will come after you on behalf of the artists and it can cost you a lot of money.

Simply put –


How Can I Use Images?



Take Your Own Photos

This is always your best option.  You know it’s yours.  And it is going to be more authentic.  If it is for your church website, you want photos of your own members (with their permission).  But think creatively.  If you want to advertise a chicken dinner, you don’t need to buy clip art –next time you have roast chicken for dinner, take a photo of that.  Take a photo of a nearby landscape to go with a Bible verse.

Ask Permission

If someone has a photo or an image on their personal blog that you like, chances are, if you ask permission and offer to credit them with a link to their blog, they will say yes. Note, if it’s a commercial site and they are selling their images, don’t ask to use them for free. And be polite if they, for whatever reason, turn down your request.

Use a Site that offers Free Images

Public Domain and Creative Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia offers two kinds of images you can use.  Be sure to read the information provided with the image so you know how you can use the image.

Public Domain – These are images that have no copyright.  You are free to use them in any way you like.

Creative Commons

These are images that artists have shared for people to use with certain stipulations, like commercial or non-commercial.  They usually require that you give credit and a link back to their site.

Be sure to read the stipulations.






This site also has photos that are either Public Domain or Creative Commons.  Note that not ALL photos on Flickr are free to use in this way.

ALWAYS check the information provided with the photo.  If it says, “All rights reserved,” you cannot use the photo.  (But if you really like the image, you can always contact the artist and ask.)

Free Sites

These sites allow you to use images for free:



So do use images on your website and social media platforms.  Just make sure you do it legally and ethically.




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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.


Digital Ministry