The only way to ensure that you have a one hundred percent original, and copyright infringement free cover for your book is to either make it yourself with all your own images, or purchase a bespoke artwork, specifically created for you. Not everyone is inclined to create their own, and bespoke book covers are very expensive, so many Indies use images bought, or downloaded for free online. Before we actually use these covers, there are a couple of things that we need to know.
All photos and images found online are automatically protected by copyright. If you download any picture without permission or payment, thinking that if you just fiddle with it a bit and change it with a bit of judicious rendering it will be alright, that isn’t true, and you are infringing on the copyright of its owner, and could find yourself in quite a bit of expensive trouble. Even if you didn’t know this when you did it.
All commonly used free images in the Creative Commons have licenses, and it’s very important to read these carefully before using an image. Many of them are free to use and change as you wish for commercial use, but there are often other instructions in the license box. Sometimes there’s a limit to how many of your final product you may sell, and sometimes attribution is required for any use of the image.
If your cover designer has committed copyright infringement in any of the elements on your book cover without you having any clue about it, you are still liable for that infringement from the minute you publish it, so you need to be very sure that any cover you purchase has been made by a designer aware and respectful of these laws.
Thinking that it is highly unlikely that you’ll ever be found out is also not a good idea. Most professional photos and images are fingerprinted so that they can easily be tracked online, no matter how much they’ve been altered. Artists and photographers these days are getting more and more outraged at the theft – innocent or otherwise – of the work that they do in order to earn their livings.
Images in the Public Domain (pre January 1, 1923) are safe to use as you like, although sometimes attribution to the photographer is required. Not very often though. So those are good to go.
Stock images are safe if used correctly – paid for or downloaded from a site like Dreamstime when offered for free. You can do anything you like to them once you have them and use them as many times as you wish. Read licences carefully first to make sure that they aren’t Rights Managed images, because those have restrictions on various uses.
These rules apply to all publishing – including publishing posts on your blog. I’ve been guilty of using images just hoiked off the internet before I knew these things, but now I’m incredibly cautious before using a picture I’m not sure I’m allowed to use. Fortunately one of the biggest boobs I ever accomplished was to delete every single image in my media gallery from the beginning of my blog. I was devastated at the time, but quite relieved now to know that there’s nothing lurking around there anymore that could get me sued.
So now you know all of these things you might be thinking that you’re not going to be able to find anything decent for your cover, but that’s not true. There are great images out there both free or at a cost that you can afford, so go for it intrepid Indies! My last two thoughts on the cover subject would be to be absolutely sure that you trust your cover designer if you take that route, and secondly to check the popularity of a purchased image if you’re planning on using it as is. There are loads of eBook covers out there using different versions of the same image.