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Mar 8 / Karen Stoll Farrell

How to Use Online Images without Breaking the Law

by Karen S. Farrell, MLIS Candidate

This post was originally posted on Information Policy for Everyday Decisions as part of coursework for LIS 8000.

We often use images in school for PowerPoint presentations, research papers, and handouts. But what happens when we want to publish these works? Whether we decide to place them on a public blog, publish them to YouTube, add them to Pinterest, or look toward more traditional publications, copyright law becomes an issue.

Unfortunately, while Microsoft makes allowances for their ClipArt to be used in the classroom, this generosity ends once any of these images hit the Internet with your name associated with them. But, all is not lost! There are still ways to find amazing images (even, dare I say it, Better images!) and still be well within any copyright

There are three key phrases to look for when dealing with an image found on the Internet that you would like to use in your own work: Creative Commons License, Free To Use, and Public Domain. If you stumble across an image that you love, these are the words you’ll want to find. If none of them are listed, or you just can’t find anything listed concerning the image’s copyright, there’s a good chance that you can’t use the image.

But what if you really love the image? It doesn’t hurt to look for a contact person on the website and send them an email. Depending on what you want the image for, it’s entirely possible that they’ll give you the go ahead. They may ask you to grant them attribution, but more on that in a bit.

If you’re just image-hunting on the Internet, there are many ways to find beautiful and relevant images. There’s even clip art, if that’s your thing. There are pay sites that deal in stock photography, but who are we kidding? If you’re in the education field (or a whole lot of other fields), free is always better. Fortunately, there are now full websites devoted to freely sharing this content. Here are my top five most frequently used image search sites:

  • WikiMedia Commons – A sister project of Wikipedia; this site has all the benefits of Wikipedia’s organizational skills. All of the images here have an “open content” license or are public domain. Instructions for use are clearly listed with each image.
  • Flickr – This link goes to their Creative Commons images only. They also give a brief overview of the different licenses used. The only disadvantage to these is that the images are not always well-labeled. You may have to search through some oddball, unrelated images in your search.
  • Google Images – From the Google Images page, you’ll have to first search for something…anything, really. Try searching for “chocolate chip cookies and milk”. (I know, I’m drooling over here.) Click on the gear button, which will open up a drop down menu. Select “Advanced Search”. Scroll down to “usage rights” and click the box. You can choose any of the “free to use” options depending on your specific needs.
  • FotoPedia – Gorgeous pictures on this site. Just make sure you go through this link to their search page. The search page from the home page link only shows one image at a time. (There are some awesome features there to learn more about the image.) From this link, just click on “advanced options” and then select the “any license” menu.
  • Pics4Learning – Want something even more user-friendly? All the images here are free to use without having to worry about granting attribution! But they must be used for educational purposes.

A word on attribution and the various licensing options: it may seem slightly confusing at first, but on all of these sites, the options are quite similar. Basically, most of them want you to credit, or give an attribution to, their work. Generally, this means that you need to list the author’s name and link back to the page where you found the picture. If you plan to use the image commercially, you’ll need to only look at those images that include commercial sharing. If you’re interested in modifying the picture in some way, you’ll also need to look at only those images. If you just need a blog photo or something to add to a PowerPoint presentation,  attribution, free to use, or the simplest licensing option listed will work!

Happy picture hunting!