Cover Design

How to Avoid Image Copyright Infringement as an Author


As you’ve probably noticed, we often talk about the importance of making your book look as good on the outside as it is on the inside. This involves choosing the right format, writing a good blurb, choosing appropriate fonts, and of course, designing a great cover. Self-publishing is so reliant on self-promotion that you can’t afford not to have a killer front cover.

In this article, we’re going to be covering the most important things to keep in mind when using third-party images for your front cover. Specifically, when do you have to worry about copyright? We’ll start by talking a bit about copyright in the UK, and then get into the specifics of image copyright and book covers. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know all about how to avoid image copyright infringement as a self-publishing author.

Of course, this whole article is based on the assumption that you’re not a photographer or graphic designer yourself. If you are, then count yourself very lucky; your job as an author just got a whole lot easier! In fact, you can probably skip this article. If you plan on getting visual material for your cover online, however, read on!

What You Should Know About Copyright in the UK

If you really want to get into the details of copyright law, the page dedicated to the topic on is your best bet. That approach does involve quite a bit of reading, however, so we’ve summarized the good bits below to save you some time:

  1. Pictures on the internet generally fall under copyright protection as artistic works.

    This means you will most likely require the permission of the creator of the image to use it for your book. If you’re not planning on publishing or selling your book, i.e. if it’s meant for private use only, then this doesn’t apply.

  2. The creator of the image is usually, but not always, the holder of the copyright.

    While the photographer or artist usually holds the first copyright of an image. This copyright is automatically assigned to the creator upon the creation of the image (incidentally, the same thing happens when you publish a book at Bookmundo). However, there are cases in which the creator does not retain the copyright.

    For example, the original creator may have given or sold the copyright to a third party. This can be a website, an agency, or any other kind of business. Usually, the site you got the image from will have information about their copyright policy.

    Generally speaking, copyright expires 70 years after the death of the creator of the image. This means that a lot of older images are exempt from most rules regarding copyright. If you have a certain image in mind that you think might fall under this category, the 70-year rule is a good benchmark.

  3. Copyright includes both economic and moral rights to the image in question

    A. Moral Rights:

    While the economic rights can be transferred to a third party, as explained above, moral rights always remain with the creator. This means that the original creator always has the right to be recognized as such, and can object to any wrongful attribution of the work being used. Essentially, this means that if you use an image you found online as your book cover, you can’t claim to be the creator of the image.

    Moral rights also allow the original creator to object to certain uses of the work, e.g. if it is considered private or personal in nature. So if you were to use a picture from someone’s wedding that you found on social media on your front cover, the copyright holder could prevent that.

    Lastly, moral rights enable the author to object to wrongful usage of the work if that usage can be considered harmful to the author’s reputation. This includes making changes to the work that the author would consider to be “distorting” or “mutilating”. As you are likely going to make some aesthetic changes to an image as part of the cover creation process, it is a good idea to ask for permission to make these edits beforehand.

    Furthermore, this final clause allows the holder of the copyright to prohibit the use of an image if it is used in morally questionable or offensive content, such as a book with overt sexist or racist messages. Basically, don’t be offensive and don’t make any unauthorized changes to the original image.

    B. Economic Rights

    Economic rights are much more straightforward than moral rights. They grant the holder of the copyright the authority to permit or prohibit almost any commercial use of the work in question. This includes reproduction, distribution, lending, and public display. Using an image as a book cover would fall under several of these categories. That’s why it’s important to know who owns the image you want to use and to ask for permission first.

A few other things to keep in mind

These three points are the key things to remember when looking for a suitable front cover image online. You should assume that they apply to almost all images on the internet unless explicitly stated otherwise. There are two more things we think you should keep in mind though.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the little © symbol that most of us associate with “copyright” carries no legal weight. In other words, just because there’s no copyright symbol to be seen, doesn’t mean that copyright laws don’t apply. Pretty sneaky, right?

Secondly, if you can’t find the copyright holder even after a thorough search, it’s possible that the image can be classified as an “orphaned work”. Basically, this means that the copyright is considered unclaimed and can be used freely, even for commercial purposes. In order for an image to be classified as an orphaned work, you have to send in an application to the Intellectual Property Office. In order to do this, however, there are some requirements you need to fulfill; a “diligent search” for the copyright owner, among others. Read about the process of applying for an orphan work license beforehand to determine whether or not you think it’s worth the trouble.

Now, you might be thinking that this sounds like a whole lot of effort to go through just to get a picture for your front cover. Well, luckily for you, we’re about to share a few ways of finding copyright-free images, allowing you to safely ignore all of the points listed above. Sound good?

Finding Copyright-Free Images for Your Book Cover

We’re don’t really believe in saving the best for last, so here’s our favourite source of copyright-free images:


Unsplash homepage

Unsplash is an absolute treasure of a site. It has an enormous selection of high-quality images that you can download and reuse freely. To quote their licensing page:

All photos published on Unsplash can be used for free. You can use them 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.

More precisely, Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.

Pretty neat, right? If you’re looking for a photographic image to use for your book cover, we highly doubt you’ll find a better source than Unsplash.


Pexels is a great alternative to Unsplash, and is based on the exact same premise. You can download, edit, and reuse pictures as you see fit. No copyright to worry about. In our experience, the images featured on Pexels tend to be edited a bit more than those on Unsplash, making for a slightly more dramatic selection. Be sure to check out their great selection of texture photos for a cool, abstract front cover image.

New Old Stock

black and white photo of a tram

Remember when we said that copyright expires 70 years after the holder’s death? Well, this site is full of fantastic vintage photos that are no longer subject to copyright. Perfect for biographies, history books, or period fiction.


Mock-up self-published abstract book cover

If you don’t want a photograph for your cover, and none of the abstract textures on Pexels or Unsplash catch your eye, you can always try making your own design from scratch! Canva is a great online graphic design tool, and you only need to create a free account to use it.

There, you’ll find a bunch of cool shapes, patterns, and presets to play around with, and you can easily create a minimalist design for your book cover with these tools. In fact, we’ve written an article specifically for those of you who are interested in designing your cover with Canva. Give it a read if you want some inspiration!

The Bookmundo Cover Designer

The Mybestseller Cover designer interface

We apologize for the shameless self-promotion. Nevertheless, we thought we’d just leave this suggestion here in case you happen to be remotely interested. In case you didn’t know, we developed our very own cover designer. It’s free to use and has next to no learning curve.

While it’s no InDesign, it’s a solid option for those of you who want minimal fuss. It features a selection of copyright-free images for you to add to your cover. These images will also be automatically resized to fit the dimensions of your cover. In other words, you have everything you’ll need in one place. You can of course upload your own images to the cover designer if there aren’t any images in our database that strike your fancy.

Google Image Search

Google search might seem like an odd suggestion in this article. Especially considering we just talked about how almost all images on the internet are subject to copyright. Well, Google is definitely aware of this, and there’s a handy tool you can use to sort out all the free-to-use images from the copyrighted ones.

To use it, simply search for an image you’d like to use for your cover. In the example below, we decided to search for an image of a beagle for our hypothetical book cover:

Screenshot of a Google image search for beagles

Once you’ve searched for your image, click on “Tools”, located to the right under the search bar. A second toolbar will pop up under the different search categories. Select “Usage Rights” on the new toolbar, and you should see what is depicted in the image above. As you can see, there are a number of different search options that take copyright into account. The one you’ll most likely want to use is underlined above – “labeled for reuse with modification”.  Images that fall under this category are free to use and edit however you like.

Honourable Mentions

Now, it’s entirely possible that you won’t find that perfect image you had in mind on any of these sites. Don’t give up though; there are more options out there. If you like Unsplash and Pexels, then Pixabay, Stocksnap, and Pikwizard are all websites in the same vein.

Is That All You Need to Know About How to Avoid Image Copyright Infringement?

Well, if all you’re planning to do is find an image online to use on the front cover of your book, then yes. The points covered in this article should help you avoid any pitfalls. Just remember:

  • If you find an image you want to use online, always check who the copyright holder is. It’s usually the creator of said image.
  • Once you know who holds the copyright, ask for permission to use the image.
  • If you get permission, make sure to follow any rules put forward by the copyright holder.
  • Be aware that the copyright holder is entitled to ask you to pay for using their image.
  • If you can’t find the copyright holder, you could attempt to apply for an orphan work license. It’s easier to just look for another image, however.
  • The websites and tools listed in the second half of this article all offer copyright-free images for you to use. This is by far the easiest way to avoid image copyright infringement.

As long as you combine these pointers with some common sense, you shouldn’t have to worry about image copyright. Again, the easiest way to avoid copyright issues is to use one of the websites listed above for your images. If you still have questions about image copyright (or any kind of copyright), feel free to contact us. You can either drop a comment below or shoot us an email. Now go finish that book!