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How To Use Images In Theme Or Plugin Demo Content From A Seller’s Perspective

Last Updated on January 29th, 2021

Published on January 12th, 2018

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Ever wondered where the images that you see in WordPress theme and plugin demo content come from?

If you’re a casual WordPress user, maybe that’s not a pressing thought on your mind. But if you’re thinking of starting a theme or plugin company, you might be wondering exactly how you can go about getting some of those images for your own products.

That’s what this post is about!

From the perspective of a WordPress business owner, I’ll be looking at some of the issues that come up when using images in your demo content, as well as where you can find images to use in the first place.

Disclaimer – I am not a lawyer and nothing in this post constitutes real legal advice. If you’re ever in any doubt, talk to a real lawyer because image copyrights are no joke – just check out this nasty demand letter from Getty Images.

The Two Approaches To Including Images In Theme Or Plugin Demo Content

example of image in WordPress theme or plugin demo content
This innocent background is actually a premium stock photo from Shutterstock

Not everyone knows it, but using images on the Internet is tricky business.

Every image that you see has a creator behind it (usually a photographer). And that person either has, or sold, the rights to that image.

You can only use that image if the license of the rights holder allows for it, which means you can’t just use any image on the Internet in your theme or plugin’s demo content.

As a result, you’ll see two main approaches to using images in theme or plugin demo content:

  • CC0 Images, or equivalent licenses – these images are both free to use and distribute. That means neither you or your customers have to pay a single cent to use the images.
  • Premium stock photos – you pay money for these images upfront and usually the licensing agreement for the photo that you purchased does NOT allow you to further distribute the image. That means your customers cannot use such images on their own sites.

While it is often possible to purchase premium stock photos with an extended license that allows for redistribution, it’s rarely a good economic decision.

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Here’s why:

Many of your customers will probably swap the demo content out for their own images anyways. So when you buy a redistribution license, you’re essentially spending a ton of money on something many of your customers won’t use.

To give you an example of how big the difference is, check out pricing for an image I checked at iStock:

  • Image with no redistribution rights – ~$33
  • Image with redistribution rights – ~$198!!

Pros And Cons Of The CC0 Image Approach

The CC0 license is a widely adopted framework that gives you the rights to “copy, modify, distribute and perform the work, even for commercial purposes, all without asking permission”.

Obviously, the major advantages of using CC0 images are that:

  • You don’t have to pay to use the images on your demo site
  • You can freely include the images in demo content that you distribute to your customers
  • Your customers can similarly freely use those images on their site

And there’s also a less tangible benefit in the fact that you eliminate the chance of your customers complaining that they can’t make their site look like the demo because there are no images!

With that being said, there are also cons to the CC0 approach:

As with all things in life, the free version often isn’t as high quality or as varied as the paid version. While you can find tons of great CC0 images, the best photographers usually want to get paid for their best work.

Basically, sometimes you might not be able to find the “perfect” CC0 image. And that might force you into a situation where you’re using a sub-par CC0 image, which isn’t great because you want your demo content to look as perfect as possible.

Pros And Cons Of The Premium Stock Image Approach

This section is pretty much the reverse of the CC0 image section, so I’ll keep things a bit briefer.

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Basically, the pros are that:

  • You have a wider selection of quality images
  • You can ensure that your demo content looks pixel-perfect

But the cons are that:

  • You’ll have to pay for the images
  • Your customers won’t be able to use the images in your demo content unless your customers purchase the images themselves.

Tips For Using CC0 Images In Theme Or Plugin Demo Content

Ok, so let’s say you want to go the CC0 image approach. Where can you find those images to use in your demo content? And what are some examples of WordPress companies that are already employing this approach?

Those are the kinds of questions I’ll answer in this section.

Where To Find Free Images To Use In WordPress Themes

I’ve actually already written about where to find free images for blog posts. And because the CC0 license doesn’t discriminate on use, you’re free to use any of those sources in your demo content.

But beyond that post, here are some of my favorite sources for CC0 images:

  • Pixabay – huge selection, but some low-quality images.
  • Unsplash – smaller selection but all high-quality images. No longer uses CC0 but its new license is still equivalent to CC0.
  • Pexels – another good source for high-quality CC0 images.
  • StockSnap.io – quality CC0 images and lots of helpful filtering options.


There are also plenty of smaller free stock photo sites with CC0 images – but I’d be shocked if you can’t find something quality at the four options above.

Examples Of Themes/Plugins That Use CC0 Images

One example of a WordPress product that uses CC0 images is Elementor.

All of Elementor’s templates come with CC0 images so that you can use the actual images in any of your page designs.

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And on the theme front, Create and Code uses all CC0 images so that their customers can use all of the images offered in the demo content (though they do ask that customers download the image separately to keep the demo content’s file size down).

Tips For Using Premium Stock Photos In Theme Or Plugin Demo Content

In this section, I’ll dig into where you can find premium stock images for your demo, as well as some tips for best incorporating those premium images in the demo content that you give to your customers.

Where To Find Premium Stock Photos To Use In WordPress Demo Content

Just like free CC0 stock images, you can find premium stock photos at a number of different sites. Some of my personal favorites are:

  • iStock – from Getty Images. iStock is expensive, but the quality is amazing. Individual images are ~$33, though exact pricing depends.
  • DepositPhotos – significantly more affordable than iStock while still maintaining good quality. As low as $1 per image for individual images, depending on the plan.
  • 123RF – over 92 million stock images for ~$8 each, depending on the plan
  • Shutterstock – over 179 million images for ~10 each, depending on the plan.


Remember To Replace Images With Placeholders In Demo Content

Because your customers cannot legally use these premium stock photos on their own sites, it’s a bad idea to actually distribute the real images in the demo content that you give to customers.

Some theme shops actually do this and tell customers to switch the images themselves…

But I think that’s a pretty horrible approach because it puts the onus on your customers to avoid image licensing issues.

What can you do instead?

Well, one option is to just replace the demo images with grey box placeholders of the same dimensions.

But you can also get a little more creative. For example, ThemeFuse applies a heavy blur effect to all the demo content images:

how themefuse handles premium stock images

I like this approach because it still keeps the context of the image while bypassing the licensing issue. Just make sure you apply a truly heavy blur effect so the image is unusable on a live site.

Are You Liable If Customers Use Your Images Despite That?

Again, I am not a lawyer. If you’re in any doubt, talk to a real lawyer.

But here’s my understanding from reading and taking some college classes on copyright:

As long as you aren’t distributing the premium images in the demo content that you give to customers, you shouldn’t be liable for any independent actions that your customers take.

It would be no different than a completely random third-party downloading the actual image file from your demo site and reusing it on their site – you can’t control that, and the person who took the image from your site without a license is the one who is violating copyright – not you.

Examples Of Themes/Plugins That Use Premium Images

Using premium stock photos is a pretty common approach with theme shops. In addition to the aforementioned ThemeFuse example, another theme shop employing this approach is Theme Fusion (though they actually use some free stock images as well).

Final Thoughts On Using Images In Theme And Plugin Demo Content

In the end, if you can find a great CC0 image, that’s probably always going to be the simplest thing to use in your demo content.

But sometimes you might need to go premium to find the stock photo that fits your product just right.

In that case, just remember to replace the premium image with some type of placeholder in the demo content files that you distribute so neither you, nor your customers, run into any licensing issues.

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Colin Newcomer is a freelance writer and long-time Internet marketer. He specializes in digital marketing, WordPress and B2B writing. He lives a life of danger, riding a scooter through the chaos of Hanoi. You can also follow his travel blog.