It has occurred that text links (<a>) to images in a question have been replaced image elements (<img>) pointing directly to another website. This type of link is called hot-linking.

IANAL but AFAIK this does not constitute copyright infringement in the US at least. Copying the image locally would, so I understand that it was done with good intentions.

However, it is considered poor net-citizenship as it consumes another site's bandwidth for our page views. It is also sometimes in violation of site usage policies at the site where target images are hosted.

Even though this is doable and may not lead to repercussions, I suggest we adopt a high standard of internet citizenship and disallow this.

....I guess I have to write this in the form of a question ;) so here goes....

Can we and should we disallow hot-linking?

  • 6
    From the answers so far, there is consensus that we should not do it but should not ban it outright. It is the poster's responsibility where images appear to check if hot-linking is at least compatible with the hosting site's terms of use. I would add myself that when hot-linking we should also link to the source as well.
    – Itai
    Mar 2, 2011 at 3:34
  • Just as a note: I added a link to the sources that I could find.
    – chills42
    Mar 3, 2011 at 17:45
  • 1
    The other problem with these types of edits that some folks miss is that the image hosts might not technically support hot-linking, either returning an empty image, or a placeholder saying "don't steal my images" (or worse). I've edited a couple of questions already where someone put in IMG tags that worked for them because they had the image cached, but those of us that hadn't seen it before got blank/broken images, or told off.
    – cabbey
    Mar 4, 2011 at 7:52

6 Answers 6


I agree that it's not illegal (see reference on wikipedia), and although some uses can be morally dubious, the ones we have on this site probably aren't. But I agree with everything you suggest about a high standard of internet citizenship.

Plus, in the case where one might, for example, create a CC BY-SA book from a Stack Exchange site, they're problematic. So I really recommend Don't Do It.

However, I also really don't think we should ban it. There are plenty of cases where the image is under a free license, or is explicitly allowed to used. A photography site really benefits from images.

And, I would really like to see a clear statement on the site that it is the content owner's understanding that merely referencing an image via an img link does not create a derivative work or require special licensing. That would clear up some of the remaining ambiguity that makes me uncomfortable.

  • 1
    Seems like that sort of statement might also apply to the licensing questions raised in my critique question.
    – D. Lambert
    Mar 1, 2011 at 4:04
  • @D. Lambert: agreed.
    – mattdm
    Mar 1, 2011 at 15:41

I think we should allow a user to "hot link" their own images, if they so desire. But I can understand that using other people's images is something that should be limited.

  • 3
    Yes, and it would be the user's responsibility to check if that is compatible the the service terms of wherever the images are hosted.
    – Itai
    Mar 1, 2011 at 14:34
  • I agree. I have my own website, hosted on my network, so I would expect to be able to link in my images! Having said that, I tend to use the upload feature for this instead, just to cut the load on my system.
    – Joanne C
    Mar 3, 2011 at 15:18
  • I tend to use the uplink, because I'm just too lazy to hotlink, but I'd like to reserve the right to use it, if I should want to for some reason. Mar 3, 2011 at 16:16
  • 1
    Hotlinking is really useful if you want to show an example in a question/answer, but it should be restricted to your own images, as using your own bandwidth is fair enough, it is simple enough to post a link to the original page for other people's images.
    – LC1983
    Mar 4, 2011 at 14:24

I suspect that even if photographs were copied for use in questions and/or answers where, it would probably qualify as "fair use" at least under US law. The law (17 USC, §107) says:

[...] the fair use of a copyrighted work, [ ... ] for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

(1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;

(2) the nature of the copyrighted work;

(3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and

(4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

At least IMO, the pictures that prompted this question were included for the purpose of comment, teaching, or scholarship. Neither the OP nor anybody writing answers appears to have any intent to profit from the copied work. Though I haven't looked at the site from which these were obtained, it seems likely that they constitute a relatively small part of the whole. It seems extremely unlikely that the question or answers is likely to affect the potential market or value of the copyrighted work.

This all goes to reinforce the fact that even if a link were considered equivalent to a copy, the question of legality probably wouldn't enter the picture.

Personally, I think creating such links should generally be avoided, but my reasons are primarily pragmatic rather than being based on a rather poorly defined concept like "good citizenship." In particular, it's purely a matter of time before most such links go stale. That leads to one of two possibilities:

  1. The pictures weren't necessary to understand the question, in which case they probably shouldn't have been included at all.
  2. The pictures were necessary to understand the question, in which case the question and answers are probably all rendered (nearly) useless if/when the link(s) go stale (which almost inevitably happens eventually, and frequently happens quickly).
  • 2
    I am by no means a lawyer, but clauses 3 and 4, that you quoted, seem troubling to me. If someone has 1000 photos on a site and we include 2, to show the difference between them, that might satisfy 3. If someone has 2, and one is linked to from here, we are using half their pictures! Or, maybe, if we link to an image, we are using 100% of that copyrighted image! Or in another case, if someone does an image search for "green site:stackexchange.com" to get a CC-licensed image, they could attribute their picture to SE, taking away the original photographer's ability to market their picture.
    – user2910
    Mar 1, 2011 at 5:19
  • 3
    Maybe to put that more succinctly: we are not lawyers here, and do not want to try to apply the law in each individual case. So we should stick to compatibly-licensed, owned-by-the-poster, or public domain photos. And FWIW, +1 for your pragmatic reasons.
    – user2910
    Mar 1, 2011 at 5:21
  • 2
    Although the questioner intends them as non-commercial, they're going on a site in which I'm pretty sure the owners intend to make money from...
    – rfusca
    Mar 1, 2011 at 5:51
  • @rfusca: I rather doubt that's relevant. If you count the publisher being for-profit, you eliminate essentially all forms of publication that existed when the law was written. Mar 1, 2011 at 6:22
  • 2
    @Jerry Coffin: that's one of the concerns with "non-commercial" clauses in licenses. It's slippery.
    – mattdm
    Mar 1, 2011 at 15:40
  • @mattdm @Jerry Coffic - Yes! I've been hit by that one once. The way I saw it argued, almost ANYTHING can be considered commercial.
    – Itai
    Mar 2, 2011 at 13:34
  • @drwbenn: it is my understanding that images used on a stackexchange site are not necessarily creative commons licensed. The text of the questions and answers are CC licensed. Also, if a photo is uploaded, it would use the terms specified by the image host (imgur.com). meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/295/…
    – chills42
    Mar 3, 2011 at 14:49
  • For the record, that last statement by @chills42 is incorrect. See this official response from Stack Exchange: meta.stackexchange.com/a/151459/154627
    – mattdm
    Aug 4, 2014 at 21:09

Hot linking really really adds to the usefulness of the site.

As long as it is not illegal, I think we should allow it.

We should strongly encourage attribution - i.e. name the owner of the image and give a plaintext link to their site.


If this site gets popular enough, we could be responsible for bringing someone's site to its bandwidth limit if you allow hot linking like this. Personally, I would be (and am) deeply annoyed by this happening.

If we are to hotlink someone's image, I would expect to have asked permission to consume their bandwidth and display their image (this is about politeness perhaps rather than legality) or verified that the owner has made the image available via a GPU license of some sort.

  • 1
    Well said! Being considerate should always comes first. Laws are usually meant for those who aren't ;)
    – Itai
    Mar 4, 2011 at 1:05

Another reason to be wary of hotlinking is walled gardens. On another SE site, there was a period where people were posting Facebook photos which were perfectly visible to them and anyone else with a login, but not to those of us who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .