Ask LH: Can I Use Copyrighted Art On My Free Album Cover?

Ask LH: Can I Use Copyrighted Art On My Free Album Cover?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m a music artist that’s planning on releasing some music. I was wondering if I could edit this picture and use it for a single/album cover? I found it online and don’t know who made it. My album will likely be put out for free/non-profit use. Thanks, DJ Solerous

[credit provider=”Alberto Seveso” url=””]

Dear DJS,

You should always endeavor to track down the creator of an image if you plan to reproduce it. This is especially true if you’re using it for commercial or promotional purposes. A non-profit music album definitely fits into the second category.

It doesn’t become a free-for-all just because the copyright owner chose to put their work on the internet. Generally, not being able to locate the artist isn’t a good enough excuse.

As the Australian Copyright Council explains: “The Copyright Act does not allow you to use material without permission if you can’t contact the copyright owner. If you use a substantial part of copyright material without permission, you will infringe copyright.”

We do have some good news, though. It took us less than a minute to track down the owner of the aforementioned image. (All you need to do is drag and drop the file into Google Images — it will then show identical matches where available.)

As it turns out, the image was created by an Italian artist named Alberto Seveso. It’s a macro shot of ink in water. Handily, Alberto has included copyright permissions on his website:

You are allowed to: publish my artworks in your blog, website and social networks, but add credits and link back to my page.
You are not allowed to: any commercial usage without permission

If you give away your music for free, it’s not technically “commercial usage” — but you should still do the right thing and ask permission anyway. In all likelihood he will have no objections, provided you credit him in the liner notes.


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  • Strictly speaking, you can’t use this image for an album cover under the current terms. The owner has only granted permission to include it in blogs, websites and social networks. It’s probable he’d have no problem with it being on a free album cover, but legally you have to get this permission first.

  • If you are ever going to charge money for anything at related to your music, including playing gigs, selling shirts or merch, or selling the music itself, then technically you are running a business and using that image would be commercial use. Doesn’t matter if the album itself is free – it is being used as marketing for your business.
    Do the right thing and ask for permission, or find a similar image that has permission to use in commercial applications.

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