This may not be directly about visual branding, but as a creator who works primarily on the internet, copyright is something I'm very passionate about. I'm going to do my best to not make this a soapbox post, but rather a helpful and informative post about copyright and your responsibility as someone who uses the internet.
Just so we're on the same page, a copyright is the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. It boils down to who owns something and has the right to use it.
To be clear, when something original is created, by default, the only person who has the copyright to it is the one who created it. The United States Copyright Office says, "In general, [copyright] registration is voluntary. Copyright exists from the moment the work is created. You will have to register, however, if you wish to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work."
This includes photos, music, illustrations, designs, code, writing, videos, etc.
Why is all of this important?
Because most frequent internet users are thieves, or have been, at one point.
THE INTERNET IS FULL OF STOLEN MEDIA
Using media you haven't created, without the copyright being given to you, is stealing.
The exceptions to this rule are called fair use: if the media in question is commented on (such as a movie review) or used for reporting news or teaching.
However, if you grab a random image from a Google search and upload it to your website or Facebook without figuring out who the copyright holder is and whether they allow others to use the photo, you stole that photo. If you are using anything created by someone else, you should always make sure it is free to use or you obtain the copyright through purchase.
If the creator has chosen to put their creation on the internet for consumption (such as uploading an image to Instagram or posting an article on their blog) then you are free to consume, but not use, the media.
However, a lot of media on the internet was not put up by the creator, and if the person who uploaded the creation didn't have the copyright to do so, but consuming that creation you are morally complicit in their theft. Stolen media is incredibly easy to find online - Youtube, for example, is full of music, TV shows and movies uploaded by users who don't own the copyright to those shows. You may not be legally responsible for this passive theft, but you are supporting and benefiting from thieves.
Behind every piece of media is a creator
The internet is very good at detaching us from other people, and that's definitely true with how we interact with art. Google images collects images by based on keywords and delivers them in a way that allows you to browse the visual vocabulary of the keywords you enter. It's a very powerful and useful tool, but one that makes the photographer, artist, or illustrator, an afterthought. For every thousand images that come up on your Google search, there are a thousand creators, each with the copyright of their created image.
Small soapbox moment (sorry!): you've heard the phrase "starving artist," right? If every time someone used an image from Google search they paid for it, that wouldn't be a saying anymore. Artists are only starving because they get stolen from, not because no one wants their work.
People who steal music like to mention that their theft doesn't hurt the recording artist, because they have plenty of money anyway. How much money you make or have doesn't affect whether or not you deserve to be paid for your work. Bill Gates still charges people for Microsoft products - are you saying it's justified to steal an Xbox because Bill Gates doesn't need the money anyway?
You are not entitled to anything
One may feel Robin Hood-esque by stealing movies from big, successful production companies, but Robin Hood was lauded as a hero because his thieving was 1) to fight against the oppression of the rich and 2) to give the poor what they needed to survive and feed their families. You do not need to post that picture of a butterfly on your company's Instagram.
Do not confuse access with ownership. Just because you can find anything you want online, doesn't mean you have permission to use it.
Media under the personal use license is free for use for pretty much anything that doesn't make you money. This category is especially helpful for students who are just trying to learn visual art and don't have the budget to purchase media for their projects. Media with personal use licenses should never be used for your business.
If you have a license for commercial use, generally that means you can use the media however you want for your business, as long as you're not selling the unedited media. For example, you couldn't download a free image from Unsplash and then try to sell it on Creative Market.
How to properly pay for what you use
This is the easiest one - if you find something you like, and you want to use it for your business or enjoy it as entertainment, find the copyright holder and pay what they charge for their product.
If you're looking for something free to use for your business, whether that's a stock photo, a repeatable pattern, or a cute illustration, a lot of free image sites will give you free resources as long as you link back to the creator on your website or somewhere in relation to where you use their image.
Some creators are truly generous, and give away their work for absolutely nothing in return. While your choices in this aspect may be limited, they are completely morally sound resources with no chance of a lawsuit in your future.
Some of my favorite absolutely free resources are:
Resources with free, paid, and link back resources mixed together:
I'm not a lawyer, and I can't explain the details of copyright law, but I do hope this has been enough to keep you from unintentionally being an art thief. If you have something to add in regards to copyright law, or have a question about something I said, please drop a comment below!