All Internet photos are protected by copyright laws except those in the public domain. Government works and images with expired or waived copyrights fall under the public domain and are free to use. A copyright-protected image is only free to use if the copyright holder has designated the image as available for this purpose.
Copyright protections are automatically assigned to all creative content the moment it is created. The laws assign all rights to use, reproduce, sell or change the content to the content creator. Individuals who wish to use an image, either as a partial, duplicate or modified image, must get the expressed permission of the creator to do so.
Image owners have the option to give up some or all of these rights. Images protected by an attribution license allows anyone to use the image for any purpose, as long as credit is given to the original owner. This license is most common in online photo banks, such as Creative Commons. Credit is given by providing a backlink to the page that contains the photo.
Image owners may transfer the ownership rights of an image to a buyer or give him a license to use it. Many websites, such as Shutterstock and Fotolia, purchase images and sell memberships to use the images through their websites. However, purchasing a license does not specifically free an image from all copyright protection.