Why do most people download images? And what’s their awareness of copyright restrictions? We take a closer look at people’s behaviors and attitudes toward downloading images.

It’s hard to imagine the internet without images – it would certainly be a duller place. 

But it’s easy to forget that all images were created by someone, and that certain restrictions will typically apply to their usage.

In an age where images are easily downloaded, shared on social media, and posted on websites without any accreditation, these factors are easily overlooked. Indeed, many people who download images may simply be unaware that such works are likely to be protected by copyright.

But it’s also clear that awareness of these factors isn’t enough to prevent unauthorized usage. 

Many of us, for example, will have encountered images shared on social media or elsewhere with their stock library watermarks still in place. And while we may feel comfortable posting a well-known image that’s already in the public domain on social media or elsewhere, when it comes to sharing work from a photographer we personally know, we’re unlikely to share it quite as freely without their permission – particularly if it bears a watermark.

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Research carried out by us last year showed there to be a broad range of reasons as to why people download images online, and varying levels of awareness as to what’s permitted when these images are used personally and publicly.

Among other things, we found that:

• search engines account for the majority of image searches and downloads
• almost one in three people will attempt to remove a watermark from an image
one in two people download images more than once a week, while roughly one in five do so every day

What are the main reasons people download images?

Our research showed the most common reasons given for downloading images relate to personal rather than professional use.

Perhaps surprisingly, the most popular reason was to use such images as wallpaper on computers. 60% of respondents claimed to download images for this purpose, while 42% claimed to do so so they could use it in a similar way on their smartphones.

These were followed in popularity by a number of reasons that concerned sharing images on social platforms. 34% of people surveyed stated that they downloaded images to share with friends, with 24% downloading images to use as backgrounds on their social media sites, and 20% using these as profile pictures, both here and on online forums.

For what purpose(s) do you download images?

Only 6% of respondents cited professional social media management and/or content marketing as their intention for downloaded images, while 6% stated they intended to use these images for professional web or app design. A further 7% claimed to do so in order to create graphics or images for professional purposes. 

How and where do most people look for images to download?

The vast majority of respondents stated that they looked for images they wanted to use through search engines. 85% of respondents answered that they used search engines to look for images, with 35% of people specifically mentioning Google Images.

How do you search for images online?

Unsurprisingly then, when asked where they usually downloaded images, 77% of respondents stated either Google or Google Images searches.

Where do you download images?

It’s clear that plenty of image downloading does, however, also take place elsewhere. Many respondents claimed to use stock libraries and social portals focused on photography, through to the official websites and social media pages of companies or brands in which they have some interest.

How do most people download images?

While many internet users now browse images through mobiles and tablets, our research indicates that the most common way to download images is through a right-click action on either a mouse or a trackpad, in conjunction with the ‘Save image as’ function.

How do you usually download images?

What proportion of online images and graphics do people believe are subject to copyright protection?

The majority of images and graphics online are subject to copyright, and cannot be used freely. Our research, however, shows no clear consensus among respondents when asked whether they believed this to be the case.

39% stated that they believed there were more freely available images online than those subject to copyright restrictions, while 31% stated the opposite. This left 30% of respondents stating that the numbers were roughly the same.

Which sentence best describes your views on images and graphics online?

It’s possible that the average respondent may not be fully aware of the distinction between an image that is subject to copyright but is available for licensing without cost, and an image that is in the public domain with no restrictions on its personal or commercial usage.

Do people believe the intended usage for an image determines whether downloading it infringes copyright?

56% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that downloading an image for personal (non-commercial) use did not violate the photographer’s copyright restrictions.

Downloading images for private, non-commercial use does not constitute a breach of copyright

With 30% of respondents undecided on the issue, only 15% stated that they did not agree with this statement to some extent.

How often do people download images?

When asked about the frequency of their downloading, half of all respondents said that they downloaded images more than once a week, while one in five claimed to do so every day.

How frequently do you download online images?

Are watermarks effective?

The watermark is the most widely used method of protecting images, and continues to be used today by individuals, stock libraries and businesses. But does it discourage people from downloading images?

46% of respondents agreed to some extent that they didn’t like the presence of either a watermark or a website logo over an image, while 22% said the opposite. The remainder (32%) were undecided.

I don’t like it when there’s a watermark with text or a website logo on images

When asked whether they sometimes made any attempts to remove such watermarks, 29% responded in the affirmative. 

Given that people may be using such images for both public and personal use, it’s reasonable to assume that they are more likely to attempt to remove a watermark if the image is destined to be used publicly.

Does download protection encourage users to look elsewhere for an image?

It’s reasonable to assume that, when attempting to download an image, most people will have experienced some form of protection that prohibits them from doing so in their chosen way. But do people persevere when they come up against this or simply look elsewhere?

If an image I like is protected from being downloaded, I look for another image that can be downloaded for free

Almost four in five respondents claimed that such a situation would force them to seek an alternative image that was not protected in the same way.

Are people prepared to pay for images?

Most people only intend to use images for personal reasons, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the majority do not pay for images they source online.

That said, the figure perhaps isn’t as high as might have been expected.

60% of respondents stated that they never bought images online, with the remaining 40% claiming to do so. However, 11% of these said that they only rarely used paid-for content. 

Do you ever pay for images?

It’s important to note that, thanks to the wide availability of images under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license or similar, just because someone hasn’t paid for an image doesn’t necessarily mean they are using it without authorization. 

Do people always adhere to image licensing agreements?

Interestingly, while many people claim to follow the terms of image licensing agreements, 43% of respondents did not either agree to some extent with this statement.

I always follow license requirements when using images downloaded from the internet

Almost one in eight people admitted that they did not always comply with these terms.

Notes and comments

While we expect that people truthfully answered the questions put to them, the nature of the subject being discussed means we should also expect that some may have answered certain questions a little less truthfully than others.

We have, for example, little reason to suspect that people were dishonest when asked about where they find images, although these same people may be less than candid when discussing their behavior around using images they know to be subject to copyright restrictions.

This research was carried out with the assistance of PMR Market Experts in May/June 2019. Representative research for internet users in Poland. Sample N=1,100. 


• More than half the people surveyed believe that downloading an image for which they do not own any rights does not constitute an infringement of the photographer’s copyright, providing it’s for personal use, while many others are unsure.

• The vast majority of image downloads are for personal rather than business use, and the most common reason for doing so is to use an image as wallpaper on a computer or smartphone.

• Search engines are the main source of image theft, so protecting the appearance of images here is important if they are to be kept safe. 

• Many people choose to save images through right-click mouse/trackpad actions, which highlights the usefulness of being able to disable this functionality.

• While the majority of people will not attempt to remove a watermark from an image they download, the fact that almost one in three people have attempted to do so indicates that the conventional watermark is not always adequate as a means of protecting images.

• Should an image not be downloadable because of the measures put in place by the photographer or rights owner, most people will attempt to download a different image found elsewhere.

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