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Images: Finding & Citing

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

Public Domain

There are some images you never need permission to use (but your professors might still want you to cite them):

Public Domain images are old enough that the copyright has expired. Some images, like many published by the U.S. Government are put immediately into the public domain, so there's no waiting for copyright to expire.  Artists can also dedicate their work into the public domain, for example by assigning it a "Creative Commons Zero" or "CC0" license giving up their own rights to the image.

Fair Use

If you find an image that isn't in the Public Domain, it's likely copyrighted, meaning that all rights are reserved, and only the original creator can publish it. 

You might still be able to use a copyrighted image, if you can prove that you aren't preventing the creator from making money.  To determine whether your use of an image is "fair use", you can use a Fair Use Checklist, and you should keep a copy of your checklist/thought process in case the creator sends you a "cease and desist" letter or tries to sue you.  Some examples of arguments in favor of "fair use":

  • If you aren't publishing something publicly, and just using it for classroom use (for example a classroom presentation)
  • If you are doing a parody of the original
  • If you are using a small portion and remixing it into something with a different purpose (for example using a newspaper clipping in a collage work)
  • You credit the creator

Some red flags that your use isn't fair:

  • If you are using someone else's image for commercial use (for example taking artwork you like and selling it on T-shirts)
  • If you are using someone else's image for entertainment purposes (for example inserting someone else's artwork into your animation)
  • If you deny credit to the creator
  • Using a large portion/entirety of the original (for example digitizing an entire book and publishing it online)

! These are just examples, librarians can't provide legal advice, so make sure you go through a Checklist and make the determination yourself !

Getting Permission to Use a Copyrighted Image

If you want to use an image that isn't in the public domain, meaning that it's copyrighted by someone else, and you don't think your use of the image would fall under "fair use", then you can reach out to the rights-holder (usually the original creator, or a publishing company) to request written permission.  

You might find an image that tells you exactly how you're allowed to use it.  For example in the description of a YouTube video there might be a statement that says "free to use with credit to the owner", so you could screenshot that statement for your records.  There's a more formal way for people to tell you exactly how you're allowed to use their image, called a Creative Commons license:

  • These symbols mean you can use it as long as you give permission:

  • These symbols mean you can use it, but only for non-commercial uses:

  • These symbols mean you can use it, but you can't change it/edit it at all: