How to Use Free Stuff LEGALLY

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer and nothing in this article constitutes legal guidance. This is general copyright information and advice from a Graphic Designer. Please consult with a lawyer before making decisions about using material with a copyright.

Most churches work within very tight budgets which can make purchasing or creating high quality graphics, photos, motion backgrounds and videos challenging. Luckily, the internet is loaded with free resources; or at least it seems that way.

With access to so much, how do we know what we can and can’t use and how we can use it? In this article I’m going to help clear things up for you. We’ll discuss when something is protected, how to make sense of the various Creative Commons License Elements, what websites I would personally recommend you check out, and the websites I would avoid.




According to the United States Copyright Office “Your work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”

Basically, this means as soon as a project is created and it is made viewable in some way, it is protected.  Yes, this means anything you find on the internet is in some way protected.

Because almost everything is protected, whether it is openly stated or not, it’s important that you only use free resources that include a Creative Commons license.  Of course, there are many websites where you can purchase graphics, fonts, videos and various other design assets but for the sake of this article we’re going to stick with understanding how to use elements that were downloaded or acquired for free.



Not all Creative Commons License Agreements are created equal. There are various elements, or guidelines, that can be added by the original creator if they’d like to control how their work is used.



There are two exceptions that we will discuss later, but at minimum every Creative Commons License requires you to give credit to the original author. It doesn’t matter if you’re using their design for a commercial, church, or a school project; you have to attribute the creator of the original design.

Here’s an example of what that might look like.

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 9.38.41 AM.png is a website that offers free and premium resources for designers to use for various projects. With a paid membership, you can use anything on the website in any way you choose without giving any attribution. However, if you downloaded any of their free resources it is required that you include “Designed by” somewhere on your finished design. For some projects this may not be an issue but for others it may seem like an obvious addition that could detract from the overall project itself. Especially if it’s being used for a sermon series slide or invite card.




For years the actual understanding of “non-commercial” was such a source of contention that research was conducted by Netpop Research in 2009 in an to attempt to find some common ground. They discovered that, for the most part, both artists and end-users agreed on a definition.

Non-Commercial is perceived as anything that is not meant to bring a profit. This includes use for personal, charitable, and non-profit organization projects.

You can check out the entire research study HERE.




No Derivatives means that you cannot make any adjustments whatsoever. These resources have to be used and shown as is.

For example, if you download a photo that has a Creative Commons License with the No Derivatives element, you cannot add text or graphics to the image or make any adjustments to the photo itself.



Share Alike just means that you also have to make your project available for use by others with the same Creative Commons License and the same elements. There are no strict rules on how you distribute your finished project to others but just know if anyone contacts you about using what you’ve created for their own project you have to make it accessible to them under the same license conditions that you were given.



This is one of the two exceptions that I was referring to. There are many websites that offer resources under a Creative Commons Zero License. This means that you can do whatever you want, use it for any project type, make a profit from the work, and you don’t have to give any credit to the original creator.




Public Domain is the second exception I was talking about. This may be a term that you’re already familiar with. Just like the Creative Commons Zero License, you can use these resources for any purpose you’d like. What separates Creative Commons Zero and Public Domain is how the license was established how how it came to be free for any use. Most resources in the Public Domain are there because the original license has expired, but there are various other reasons. If you’d like to know the specifics, you can read more about the license here.




First, I am in no way saying the the following websites are bad or that you should never use them. I’m only saying that when it comes to acquiring free resources, I would avoid these sites because the likelihood of accidentally downloading and using a project that has an existing copyright is very high. It’s easy for someone to pass off something as their own original work and it would be difficult for you to know if they’re being honest.

Jeff McIntosh, Director of Church Motion Graphics, recently spoke about an incident involving the distribution of their productions. A YouTube user was uploading motion backgrounds that were originally produced by Church Motion Graphics and passing them off as their own personal creations. The user also provided a link allowing others to download them for free which is a direct violation of the Church Motion Graphics Content License Agreement. The user even included a fake Creative Commons license. Here’s the post Jeff added to the Visual Church Media Facebook page in early January of 2017.

Screen Shot 2017-02-02 at 9.55.05 AM.png

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. I’ve seen similar situations many times and I believe it shows us just how serious we need to be about finding and using free resources responsibly. That being said, here is a list of websites that I would navigate with caution.

  1. YouTube – The resources on YouTube are seemingly endless but, just like the incident mentioned above, many videos are uploaded illegally and it’s better to avoid using them altogether.
  2. Pinterest – Pinterest is a wonderful place to get inspiration and ideas from, but it’s not the best place to get resources. Users can upload photos and graphics without knowing what kind of copyright it may have or they can pin web articles without knowing the validity of the content.
  3. Google Image Search – I feel like most people know this already, but this is probably the worst place to look for resources to download. Google Image Search is a fantastic tool but the images that it pulls up are often not safe to use. This isn’t the fault of Google, it’s just a misunderstanding of the purpose of Google Image Search.




Ah, yes! The moment you’ve all been waiting for. Here are a few of my favorite websites to get free resources.

  1. CreationSwap – This site was created by church creatives, for church creatives. It’s an awesome website to get a variety of free resources. The best part is because the designs are created and uploaded by designers in the ministry, they’re perfect for use in a church environment with minimal adjustments, if any!
  2. Creative Market (Free Goods Section) – Creative Market is a great place to purchase resources but they also have a Free Goods section that changes every Monday. I highly recommend checking them out for unique fonts, plug-ins, actions, vectors, and design templates.
  3. Unsplash – Unsplash is one of my favorite websites for free photos. Everything is under the Creative Commons Zero license so you can use the images for whatever purpose you’d like.
  4. CMG Create – While Church Media Graphics is a killer subscription service for still backgrounds, motion backgrounds, titles, and layers, they also have a section of free downloads. If you’re looking to upgrade the lyric backgrounds and title slides for your worship service, you should definitely take a look at what they’ve got to offer!


Was this article helpful? What are some of your favorite websites for design resources?




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