Book Image Copyright 101: how to legally use photos and artwork on your book cover

Book Image Copyright 101

Welcome to Book Design 101 – a handy guide covering all the basics of what you need to know when publishing your first book. In this episode, we’ll look at which images you can use on your book cover – and which ones you can’t. Let’s start – here’s Book Image Copyright 101!

Check out other articles in the Book Design 101 series here.

Book Image Copyright 101

Let’s start with a very important rule: if you see an image on the Internet, assume it’s copyrighted.

This will help you avoid many mistakes and, possibly, legal repercussions. To use a photograph, you need to acquire a license from a photographer; to use an artwork, you need to acquire a license from the artist (or, more generally, the person holding the copyright to the given piece). Sometimes, you can be given permission to use an image simply by asking; more commonly, you have to purchase usage rights, especially if you plan on selling the end product (for example – a book).

But… are all images really copyrighted? And do all copyrighted images have to be purchased?

Well, no.

Let me elaborate.

Public Domain

Some images belong to public domain – which means that they can be used by anyone and in any way. Usually, these are images to which intellectual property rights expired or were waived. For example – no one will sue you if you’ll use Leonardo da Vinci’s artworks on a book cover or a t-shirt, because Leonardo died a long time ago and there’s no person or institution holding the rights to his paintings.

How to determine if an image is in public domain? Look for the sign of a crossed out “c”, like the one below. You can also look for copyright information, or, if there is none available, do a reverse image search. 

Public Domain Button with crossed out c for "Copyright".
Source: Creative Commons

There are also online libraries that specialize in aggregating public domain images – for example, you can freely use images shared by:

If you’re looking for something with artistic value – there are also specialized stock image sites which publish photos belonging to public domain:

Creative Commons

Another common license that often allows for commercial use is a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons is an international non-profit which created a system for knowledge and resource-sharing. If you want to share something you created with other people, but with some limitations, CC is the way to go. 

There are six different CC license types, each one with its own set of rules – here’s a helpful infographic:

Practicle Guide to Copyright - Creative Commons.
Source: Creative Commons

And here’s what the abbreviations mean:

BY: credit must be given to the creator.

SA: Adaptations must be shared under the same terms.

NC: Only noncommercial uses of the work are permitted.

ND: No derivatives or adaptations of the work are permitted.

You can read more at the Creative Commons website:

The organization has also a handy search tool which allows you to search for resources choosing a specific license: Assets shared under Creative Commons include images, music, videos, 3D models and more.

Copyright 101 - DO’S and DON’Ts

Here’s a few more ground rules for how to make sure that the images you’re using are legal – and you’re not going to get sued:


…use stock images from public domain

Or licensed using Creative Commons – as described above.

…use royalty-free stock images

Many images can be purchased at a relatively small cost – and you can do that by using sites like Adobe Stock, Depositphotos, or Shutterstock. Their standard asset licenses are usually valid for up to 500 000 copies (of your book, e-book, or any other product) and can be either modified or used as-is.

There are also services that sell photos made specifically for book covers – here’s a few:

Many platforms for artists also allow for selling resources, and there are more than a few photographers who share reference stock image packs – for example on Artstation, Cubebrush, or Gumroad.

…purchase custom illustrations or photographs

If you’d like to use a custom illustration or photograph – or have one taken/created specifically for your book – it’s best to commission an illustrator or a photographer whose work you like. Prices usually vary depending on style, complexity of the image you’re ordering, experience of the artist, and the extent to which you’re planning on using the artwork.

You can also try asking about the possibility of purchasing the usage rights to an already existing artwork – if it wasn’t created for another client, it’s very likely that the artist will be happy to come to an agreement with you.


…use Google or Pinterest as a source

Google is a search engine. Pinterest is a search engine with social medium aspirations. Both sites allow you to access images, but they don’t own them. Go back to rule one: if you see an image on the Internet, assume it’s copyrighted.

…use AI-generated images

AI can be a useful tool, but they way the models – such as Midjourney or DALL-E – are trained is highly unethical. The datasets they use consist not only of images in public domain, but also of copyrighted work that was used without permission of its creators. Currently (I’m writing this in June 2024), there are several ongoings lawsuits against AI companies that created these models, and, according to US courts, AI-generated content cannot be copyrighted. This means that if you use AI-generated images or illustrations in your book, they can be used – also commercially – by anyone, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

In addition, even if you don’t care about the ethical aspect, think about this – since the AI models are trained on copyrighted assets, you have no guarantee that your output image does not literally use a piece of easily recognizable, existing artwork, or the face of an existing person who did not consent to be part of your cover or illustration. Is the possibility low? Maybe.

But do you really want to risk a copyright infringement lawsuit?

That’s it!

I hope you found this short article useful – let me know if you think it’s lacking something, or if you have an additional question.

Remember – this article is a very basic introduction. Read all image licenses carefully, and if you have doubts, consult with a lawyer.

I’m always up for a chat – get in touch via  

Read more: