Pexels.com is a popular website that offers free stock photos.
Overall, the service that Pexels provides theme authors and website owners is pretty great. Images are well categorized, the search is easy to use, fast, and relevant.
Once logged in, you can arrange collections of your favorit images, and you can follow your favorite photographers.
The problem with Pexels
When theme authors create a WordPress theme, they are bound by the terms of the GPL. This assures that a person who has a copy of the theme, can also use the images that are included in the theme. They are allowed to resell the image, share it, and change it.
The problem theme authors face when they use Pexels is that the stock photos are either licensed under the Pexels license, or in the public domain, Creative Commons Zero.
1) The Pexels license
When you visit pexels.com, it is easy to find the license information: It is linked in the top right menu: https://www.pexels.com/license/
The title of the license page is Legal Simplicity, and the page lists three important points about the images you download:
- All photos and videos on Pexels are free to use.
- Attribution is not required. Giving credit to the photographer or Pexels is not necessary but always appreciated.
- You can modify the photos and videos from Pexels. Be creative and edit them as you like.
Further down -you have to scroll quiet a bit, they also list four things that you can’t do:
- ✕ Identifiable people may not appear in a bad light or in a way that is offensive.
- ✕ Don’t sell unaltered copies of a photo or video, e.g. as a poster, print or on a physical product without modifying it first.
- ✕ Don’t imply endorsement of your product by people or brands on the imagery.
- ✕ Don’t redistribute or sell the photos and videos on other stock photo or wallpaper platforms.
The two points we care about, that are not compatible with the General Public License are:
- Don’t sell unaltered copies
- Don’t redistribute on other stock photo or wallpaper platforms
Yes, I know what you are thinking: “But I’m not creating a stock photo site“.
You might not be; but the person who has a copy of the theme, has the right to do that, -as long as they follow the GPL.
GPL does not allow you to restrict the distribution of the image this way.
That means that images with the Pexels license can not be used in WordPress themes.
2) Public domain
Public domain, CC0, is officially compatible with GPL: https://www.gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html#PublicDomain
But on Pexels, they don’t show you which photos that are in the public domain, and which photos use the Pexels license.
This is the big drawback with using Pexels as your source for free photos. They use a dark pattern to hide the license information for the individual images.
The only way to find images that are in the public domain, is to select an image you like, and then click the link below the image that says Free to use:
The link you want is https://www.pexels.com/creative-commons-images/.
On this version of the license page, Pexels explains that:
All Photos on Pexels can be used for free. While the most photos are released under the Pexels license, some photos are covered by the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. Both licenses are similar and allow you to do the following:
- Use all photos for free for commercial and noncommercial purposes.
- Giving credit to the photographer or Pexels is not required but appreciated.
- You can edit and adapt the photos as you like.
Pexels could be great, but because they hide the license information, and because it is not possible to search for images that are in the public domain, it is too time consuming to try to find great images.
- If the license link leads to the Pexels license page that I described above, then don’t use the image in your WordPress theme. You can still use it in your demo, as long as you follow the terms and don’t redistribute the demo content.
- If the license link leads to the Creative Commons page, feel free to use the image.