Skip to Main Content

Copyright Tutorial: Images

I found an image on Google. Can I use it?

It is sometimes thought that materials available on the open web are in the public domain, or otherwise free to reuse. In fact, most works posted on the web are protected by copyright, and therefore reproducing or distributing web content may require permission from the copyright holder, just as with print materials. However, simply creating links to legally posted web materials typically does not require permission.

There are many websites that have Creative Commons or public domain images that can be use with no permissions or fees. A simple Google search can locate them.

Book covers

A copyright exception that could be useful here -- the "useful article" provision at 17 USC 113(c) which states: In the case of a work lawfully reproduced in useful articles that have been offered for sale or other distribution to the public, copyright does not include any right to prevent the making, distribution, or display of pictures or photographs of such articles in connection with advertisements or commentaries related to the distribution or display of such articles, or in connection with news reports.

Digital Images

Fair Use:
It is generally accepted that the following uses of digital images are permitted under copyright law's fair use provisions:

  • An educator may display digital images for educational purposes, including face-to-face teaching of curriculum-based courses and research and scholarly activities at a nonprofit educational institution.
  • An educator may compile digital images for display on the institution's secure electronic network to students enrolled in a course given by that educator for classroom use, after-class review, or directed study, during the semester or term in which the educator's related course is given.
  • Students may use digital images in an academic course assignment such as a term paper or thesis or in fulfillment of degree requirements.
  • Students may publicly display their academic work incorporating digital images in courses for which they are registered and during formal critiques at a nonprofit educational institution.
  • Students may retain their academic work in their personal portfolios for later uses such as graduate school and employment applications.
  • nts may use or display digital images in connection with lectures or presentations in their fields, including uses at non-commercial professional development seminars, workshops and conferences where educators meet to discuss issues relevant to their disciplines or present works they created for educational purposes in the course of research, study or teaching.

Special Considerations

Photographs of people may involve rights of privacy or publicity, state and/or federal laws which limit the use of a person's likeness.  Consider:

  • Using photographs of people taken in larger public scenes
  • Avoiding photographs of famous people, or people engaging in private activities
  • Being aware that Publicity rights limit commercial uses

Photographs of works of art may involve the rights of the work's creator/copyright holder. Consider:

  • Using photographs of 2-D public domain works -- these are usually not protected by copyright

Buildings designed after Dec. 1, 1990 are copyrighted. Consider:

  • Using photographs taken from a public place

Open Images

Need help?

Profile Photo
Lori Bryan

Making a case

To help support a fair use case for an image:

  • Use lower resolution or thumbnail versions where possible;
  • Place the image in a new context or use it for a new purpose; and
  • Use only the parts of the image needed for the purpose