personal isn’t private: why you can’t use things only licensed for personal use on your blog

personal isn't private

Important: I’m not a lawyer; please don’t read this post and say “well, that’s all I need to know!” There are definitely things I’m missing here, and if you’re concerned about potential legal trouble resulting from your blog or social media posts, you’ll need to do lots of homework.

I got my first ever email from a reader recently! I was hoping it was going to be someone complimenting me on my shiny, shiny hair but no dice. Instead, it was someone who told me, as gently as possible, that I was wrong when I said that blogging can’t be considered personal use, and so you can’t use things that are licensed for personal use only when you’re blogging.

I get where that reader, and where lots of other commenters I’ve seen on other blogs, are coming from. You’re posting your own words about your own experiences, and that’s inherently personal. And if your blog isn’t monetized, you’re good to go, right?

Not quite. Let’s try out a different scenario: you’re sitting on your front step, it’s a beautiful day, and you’ve decided to enjoy the sunshine by getting totally naked. Your neighbour’s like, uh, what the hell, and calls the police. The cops show up and you explain to them that, hey, public nudity might be a crime but you’re not in public. You’re on your own front step, after all. It’s yours. It’s personal.

Except that everyone can see you. Your property or not, you’re out in public.

I think a lot of the confusion I see regarding the copyright issue comes from the word personal. Of course your blog is personal. Everything about it is shaped by your experiences, your goals, and your personality. But publishing it online means that whatever you’re putting out there, everyone can see it. It’s personal, but it isn’t private. And when you’re not in private, the rules are different.

Think of the warnings at the beginnings of movies. You may have bought it, but you’re still not legally allowed to copy it, distribute it, or show it publicly, even if you’re not profiting from it. While it’s your personal copy, there are restrictions on what you’re legally allowed to do with it. Hurl the disc into the sun? Go for it! Rip it and burn a copy for Uncle Bob? Nope. Haul a projector into the middle of a public park so you can graciously allow everyone and their mother to see your favourite movie for free? Also nope, and this is probably the closest example to our blog situation.

Maybe your blog is low-traffic enough that you think you won’t get in trouble for using an image in spite of its licensing requirements. Maybe your neighbourhood is low-traffic enough that you think you can get away with that awesome roadside sunbathing. And maybe these things have proved true — so far. All it takes is one annoyed viewer to get you in serious trouble.

When I wrote about copyright issues before, I mentioned that technology keeps getting better and better when it comes to image identification. If you’ve ever used Google Images’ reverse-search feature, you’ll know that it’s easy to identify the source of an image. You’ll also know that you’ll also bring up just about every other site that’s ever posted that image. The larger stock image companies have been known to use technology like this to track down unlicensed usage of their images and smack the users with ridiculously large fines. This is only going to get more and more common as the technology improves, and as more rights-holders realize they can profit hugely from this.

Another argument I keep seeing is that because a blogger isn’t earning money from their blog, it doesn’t count as a commercial venture. And that’s just not true. It might not be commecial for you, but if it’s hosted on a site like WordPress or Blogger, or you’ve got your own domain you pay to have hosted, it’s certainly commercial for them — either you’re paying them or they’re putting ads on your site. After all, they’re businesses. And just like any business worth their salt, they’ve used the TOS agreement to put the responsibility on you, the user of their service, to only post things you have the rights to. Anything you post is your responsibility, legally and financially.

To reiterate: if you are paying for domain hosting, or if your blog’s host puts advertisements on your blog, or any money has changed hands (or could potentially change hands) for any reason as a result of your blog, it cannot be considered personal. And on the off-chance that it doesn’t fit that criteria, you can still be in murky legal territory just by posting it publicly. As the person posting, you are the one who is legally and financially responsible for any misuse of content that isn’t your own, even if that misuse was not intentional.

(Was that enough emphatic formatting? If this were the 90s I would have used a blink tag just to be sure.)

One last, personal note: I cringe so hard every time I see a photo credited to Tumblr, Pinterest, WeHeartIt, Google Images, or anything like that, without adding in the username of the person who created it. Tumblr didn’t create the image — a Tumblr user did. Not only are you posting it without permission, you’re attributing creatorship to someone else, which comes with its own potential legal problems — if it’s in any way objectionable (and let’s face it, everything’s objectionable to someone or another) in a way that could harm the brand you’ve associated it with, they may take action against you. On a lesser scale, though, and the reason it’s a huge pet peeve for me: it’s just really careless, and super-tacky.

Basically, all this boils down to “don’t use stuff without permission,” as I stressed last time I ranted on this topic. If you don’t have the time to ask, to properly source, and/or to make your own stuff instead, you definitely don’t have time for a legal battle in which you’re absolutely in the wrong.


Don’t get sued, part 2: a confession

And my confession is, to quote GOB Bluth:

I've made a huge mistake

I’ve made a huge mistake.

Remember last week’s post about blogging resources you can use without fear of lawsuits? Remember how I said I was going to look into actual images and fonts you can use?

yeah. About that.

I was so optimistic going into it, you guys. I like being helpful, I like doing detective work, and I love a low-stakes challenge. I really thought I was going to have a huge list of resources by now. But just about everything I found that claimed to be free had something or another wrong with it:

  • Creative commons-licensed stuff, but allowed unmoderated user uploads and licensing, thus potentially leading to the problem discussed last week with regards to Flickr: people uploading things they don’t own themselves, and putting licenses on it.
  • Stock photo sites that allow free downloads, but only tiny, poor-quality images (or watermarked ones).
  • Stock photo sites that allow free downloads, but only if you give them your credit card information first (side note, aren’t we past the whole “free” trial thing? just, like, as a society? it really feels like the kind of thing that should have died out by now.).
  • Font repositories that contained misused and incorrectly sourced fonts at best, blatantly stolen fonts at worst.
  • The usual “free resources!” lists that were full of unsourced, or incorrectly sourced, material that, upon further investigation, proved to not be free at all.
  • No terms of service, or indeed any kind of information at all. I feel like that’s the online equivalent of a van with “FREE CANDY” marked on the side.

Even when I found things that were 100%, totally, legally free, sometimes they weren’t things I could feel okay about using, since sometimes these totally legal things end up being kind of shady after all. And while there seems to be a growing number of creator-owned sites springing up to fill the gap, all the ones I found had small or unsearchable libraries, making them of limited use.

So, ultimately, I’m scrapping what I hoped would be an ongoing series where I linked image and font sources you could safely use. Instead — at least for today — I’m just going to simplify and stress what I said last week:

If you didn’t make it yourself, and you don’t have permission, don’t use it.

You need to know that every time you post something that you didn’t make yourself, that you don’t have a license for, that you haven’t been given explicit written permission to use, you’re risking a lawsuit. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. As much as I would like to, I can’t sugar-coat this one. There’s honestly not a lot out there you can use for free without asking. Be skeptical, be thoughtful, be careful.

With all of that in mind, here’s one resource I did think was awesome: this post at Olyvia, listing loads of free resources. If you’re looking for free images for commercial use, this should be your starting point — this was the only list I found where the author stressed the need to use legitimate sources that can’t get you in trouble.

Now that I know I can’t get on this subject without turning into a big ball of doom and gloom, I’m going to shift focus to creating new things. I’m already about 1000% more excited about what I’ve got planned, so I think it’s going to work out even better than what I’d originally thought to do. First on my list is an easy, fun photo-editing project that I hope you’ll join me for next Tuesday!

Free blogging resources that are ACTUALLY free, and won’t get you sued

free blogging resources that are ACTUALLY free and won't get you sued

Important: I’m not a lawyer; please don’t read this post and say “well, that’s all I need to know!” There are definitely things I’m missing here, and if you’re concerned about potential legal trouble resulting from your blogging or social media posts, you’ll need to do lots of homework.

It’s amazing to me how many hugely popular blogs I see using images the writer found on WeHeartIt or Google Images. Guys, I love you, but you’re going to get sued. I know, everyone uses images from all over the place, right? But that’s pretty much the worst legal excuse of all time, and it’s not going to save you from what could be a pretty ridiculous fine, as this blogger learned the hard way. Cases like this are only going to get more common as reverse-image searching gets better and better, allowing creators and rights-holders greater ease when it comes to searching out their images.

Some of you are probably reading this and going “Well, I get my pictures from Flickr and it’s all under creative commons licenses.” That’s a gamble, though — turns out some people upload images they don’t own and check off the creative commons boxes. There’s a deeper look at this issue over here, emphasizing a hard fact about many stock agencies and larger companies: they don’t care that the fault truly lies with the original uploader. They just want more money.

Also, as an aside: if you’re thinking “I cite my sources, it’s publicity for them,” as I’ve seen argued in the comments to some of these articles, you should know that the publicity argument is super-shady. If it’s genuinely a great opportunity to have their stuff on your page — and there are definitely cases where that’s true, don’t get me wrong! — then you would be contacting them in advance to introduce yourself, let them know what you and your blog are about, and ask permission to use their images.

Back to the topic at hand: I’ve also seen several posts with free resources like fonts and backgrounds, which is great — except a lot of people don’t seem to read the licenses. Blogging is murky territory when it comes to licensing, since a lot of licenses require payment unless it’s personal use. While it seems logical that a personal blog would constitute personal use, it’s not always (or possibly ever) the case, depending on things like ad revenue, sponsorship of any sort, or even the type of hosting you have. (But that’s a blog post that needs to be written by someone who speaks more legalese than I do). To be totally safe, you should only be using things you created yourself, or using things you have a license or express permission from the creator to use.

We need to stop using images that could get us in legal trouble, and we seriously, seriously need to stop recommending that others do the same. Luckily, there are lots of tools out there you can legitimately use for free to learn how to do it yourself.


Taking your own pictures can be a pain at first, but it’s a valuable skill to have. It doesn’t have to be expensive, either; while an SLR camera is optimal, you can take excellent pictures with a decent point-and-shoot camera, or even your phone. A few resources:

  • One of my favourite bloggers has put together this quick list of lighting dos and don’ts that makes for a solid, simple introduction to lighting, which is (in my opinion, anyway) one of the trickiest parts when starting to learn photography.

Prance (4)

Design is not my strong suit, and I’ve typically been more than happy to do the bare minimum. Lately I’ve been branching out a little more, though, and I’ve found the first two items in this section especially helpful.

  • I can’t remember who first linked me to Creative Market’s Free Goods of the Week. Was it you? If so, thank you. Every week, Creative Market puts up six items — it could be backgrounds, Photoshop brushes, graphics packs, WordPress themes, pretty much anything — totally free to download and use for all kinds of ventures. Worth noting, though, is that sometimes the file’s creator will have licensing info in the downloads that contradicts the Creative Market licensing, which allows for commercial use. While the Creative Market licensing should technically supersede the creator’s license (since the creator would have to agree to their TOS to list the item), it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
  • Canva is my current favourite thing. It has a huge variety of elements you can use to design graphics for pretty much anything. Many of their layouts and elements require payment, but you can easily make fantastic-looking things with their free items, especially if you’re uploading your own images into the templates. (Make sure to check out their TOS, which has a plain English summary alongside the legal jargon — there may be restrictions if you’re using stock media, even the free items.)
  • If you need inspiration for colour, check out Design Seeds, a site that posts beautiful palettes alongside the photography that inspired them.


Via Design Seeds, which — it’s worth noting — has really clear, easy-to-follow terms for sharing their images on your blog, as any creator who does want their images shared will have. Seriously, guys, stop sharing things all willy-nilly, hoping for the best, and then recommending others do the same.

To conclude, in the words of one of my favourite characters: CONSTANT VIGILANCE. If you’re not sure about something, don’t use it. If you are sure about something, you probably still shouldn’t use it — at least not without doing a little detective work. And if you can’t be bothered to do the detective work, you need to make your own things instead.

I’ll be doing a little bit of that detective work for you in a post next week, so check back!

Note: This post hasn’t been sponsored in any way — these are all things that I either find useful or think someone out there might.