Skip to main content

Visual Media: Finding & Citing

Resources for finding images and video, evaluating licenses, and citing

Can I Use It? Flowchart

Image of a flowchart for copyright questions

Copyright Basics


As soon as you produce an image, written statement (text, tweet, etc.), sound recording, etc. it is immediately protected under copyright law.  It's not like a patent for an invention, where you have to file official paperwork.  This means that if you're publishing a book, or creating a website, and you want to include someone else's photographs, even if you found them for free on the internet, you probably have to get written permission.  Check out some exceptions below:

FAIR USE (Educational Use)

If you're using images for a presentation in class or to include in a research paper, just to be shown to your teacher and classmates, for a specific assignment, you can use any images you want.  You just want to make sure you cite everything correctly, so your professor can check your sources.  However, if you then want to present that same PowerPoint to the public at a conference, or submit that paper to be published in a journal, you would have to get permission from the copyright holders for the images you use.  However, there are even exceptions to that! Check them out below:


There is a non-profit solution to the hassle of getting copyright permissions.  People can now publish images on the web and tell you exactly how you're allowed to use them.  So a photographer can publish their images with a Creative Commons license that allows people to use it for free, as long as they attribute it to them and don't change anything.  Someone else might publish images for non-commercial use only, but allow you to modify them.  People can even require that if you modify their image and create something new, you have to  share the result openly with everyone (called ShareAlike).  Go to the Creative Commons website for more information about the licenses, with links to searchable databases of creative commons images.  To use an image, just copy and paste the Creative Commons license next to the image with an attribution:


Works are only covered under copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years.  Works published in the U.S. before 1923, or published before 1963 without being renewed, are now in the Public Domain.  This means that they can be used, modified, shared, etc.  You don't have to attribute them, or get permission.  If you're using them for a school assignment, you should still cite them, so your professor knows where you got them.  You can also publish new images with a Creative Commons 0 license (CC0), which effectively enters it into the public domain immediately.  For more information about the public domain, visit this Teaching Copyright page.


Why can't I just copy and paste an image from my Google Image search results page?

You should always visit the website where the image originated. If you just copy and pasted a picture from the Google Image search result page, then you don't know where/when it was originally published, or who create it. Without that info, it's impossible to cite correctly.  Instead of copying images from the search results, go to Visit Page and see where the image came from (see pic below).  

In this case the picture is from an Audubon Society website, so I can trust that they took the picture and have the rights to share it with me.  If your Google Image search takes you to a random blog that doesn't cite their images, they might have stolen them from somewhere else, so just like information you find without citations, you don't want to trust it.  Try using the image collections we link to in the tabs at the top of this website!

What if I find an image on a website without an author, or information about whether I can use it?

You can cite a corporation as an author. For example in the picture above, we could cite the Audubon Society as the author.  If you don't know who the author is, because it seems like the person who designed the website is using someone else's images, then you should try to track down the original creator or find different images to use instead (try the links in the tabs at the top of this page!)

If there's no copyright claim or Creative Commons license, you can still cite the image and use it in your homework assignments. But if you're going to publish it publicly, then you would need to reach out to the owner to get written permission.


Do I need permission to use an image in a paper or class presentation?

Most educational uses of visual media are covered under fair use. So you have to cite the information/images/videos you find, but you don't have to ask for permission to use them.  If you're using it for in-class use, only to be shown to your classmates and professor then you have more freedom than if you wanted to publish someone else's image publicly (like on your website or in a conference presentation).

Designed and maintained by Lesley University Librarians
Website based on LibGuides 2 Customization