The short answer is: it depends. Before we get to the good bits here, let me state that I am not a lawyer, and nothing in this article is intended to replace the advice of legal counsel. If you have specific questions about using images downloaded from the internet in your print on demand designs, I always suggest contacting a copyright attorney. Ok, now the rest of the answer: The long answer to this question lies in the source of the image you procured from google. There are stock photography websites like Shutterstock and Adobe Stock which allow you to license their images for personal or commercial use, and the price you pay will be significantly more for commercial use (and the restrictions of how it can be used are more stringent.). So, at this point, you might be asking yourself can I or can’t I use the images I find on google for my designs?
It is complicated
Before you use an image downloaded off google in your design you need to be aware of the legal rights of the image holder, the person who actually took the photo or made the image you want to use. Has this person released the content into creative commons where anyone can use it as they see fit? Have they released it to stock sites so they can make a per-image fee from its use? If you are not 100% sure of the source of the image and how it can be used, then don’t use it. Artists have rights, and their images come with inherent copyright just lie your print on demand designs do. If you create a cool design and upload it and someone steals it right away, how do you feel that they are making money off the design you made? Is this starting to make a little more sense now?
Long term considerations
If you download an image from a stock website and use it in one of your designs do you know your rights? If the stock site goes out of business does the license you are using the image under still apply? Or are you required to take your design down? If you get dinged for copyright on one of your print on demand sites do you have a copy of the image license on file that you can access if you need it? If you get sued would you be able to produce a verifiable license agreement (even if the website was out of business) for the image you used and made money from?
If the source of the image you are using is a website like pexels.com then according to their license agreement, you can (as of this writing) use images downloaded from their site for commercial applications like blogs, websites, commercials, and even print on demand designs. I would of course refer you to their site for the most current restrictions in their license agreement.
Here is a link to the Terms and Conditions for Pelxels:
Is it worth the trouble?
This all sounds like a lot to keep track of. If I download an image from Pexels I have to keep a copy of the license agreement and I have to actually read the agreement to ensure that my application is not voiding my license for that image? I also must keep track of the sources I have used in my designs and ensure that the licensing has not changed for the materials I am using in my designs? Yes. The alternative is that you get sued and lose your car, house dog, etc. Again, I will state that I’m not a legal scholar but I have a lot of experience with licensed properties, and believe me if you are being taken to court over copyright infringement you should be concerned. Most lawyers won’t take a case unless there are clear and current materials representing the copyright claim. You do have an LLC (limited liability corporation) that you run your design business through just in case, right?
Everyone is in the same boat
So what if you are like the many out there who are doing print on demand designs with no graphic design background or skills? You don’t have the ability to make cool designs yourself so you scour the internet for clipart and images you can use for your designs. Well, I hate to be the one to break this to you, but there are a lot in the print on demand industry who do exactly the same thing you do. When you use images from Pexels, yes, they are useable in commercial designs, but realize that everyone else is also using the images from Pexels in their designs as well. Print on demand is a very saturated market to be in and when you are working in a saturated market, you need to figure out what you can do to set yourself apart from the crowd.
Set yourself apart
If a customer comes to Redbubble and searches for “I love coffee” shirts, and five results come up, two with just words, two with the same coffee cup image from google images and the words and one with a cool character holding coffee which one do you think is going to sell? Generally, depending on the design the more unique offering will be the one that sells. So how do you get to be the guy selling the unique design instead of the cookie-cutter design everyone else is doing? Take some classes, get real software like photoshop and illustrator and learn to use them. If you are using the free options, pre-made templates or just text designs your work is not going to stand out from the crowd. Learning to make (good) unique designs can be a long road to take, but you will sell more in the long run, and what is even cooler is that once you make your fortune from your designs you can release them to stock sites for others to license and make you even more money from. Cool huh?
Is stealing images from the internet for your designs worth it? No. at best, your images will get copyright flagged and taken down, at worst you will get sued and the money you made from that design will have to go to the rightful owner (the creator of the design) and your lawyer. Take your own pictures, make your own designs, create your own illustrations and overall you will get a financial win and a moral one because you didn’t steal other artist’s work to make money.