At risk of sounding cynical, experience has taught me well that free generally comes at a cost, such as loss of quality, the addition of a hidden agenda or trouble down the road. This is no less true in the world of images.
When I first started searching for images for small projects, I soon discovered sources claiming to offer illustrations and photos that can be used for free. While one might assume these fall under the realm of public domain, it made me wonder where those images originally came from and who was so nicely doing all the work just to give them away.
Then I noticed in teeny-tiny print at the bottom of the page that some of the images might be subject to copyright. A quick click on one of them proved this to be true as it took me to an online service offering royalty-free illustrations and photos with the purchase of a subscription.
The term royalty-free allows an individual who has purchased the right to use the image to do so without ever paying any additional costs down the road. This means that if you got an illustration to use in a greeting card today, you can put it on a flyer two years from now without paying again.
The message here is that had I just saved the image as it appeared I was permitted to do, without reading the fine print, I would have been using that image illegally, which could have resulted in legal woes and heavy fines. How much? Well, here are a few enlightening blogs that offer some rather eye-opening insight:
Web Copy Plus
The Content Factory
It has become such a concern in the industry that there are lawyers now specializing in this particular type of theft. And make no mistake. It is theft.
For me, considering the many safe resources out there for image needs with affordable options to meet every budget, the only way to go is by paying the money now. Accessing images online may not be free, but it can be care-free.