Looking for an image to use for a class (including for papers and presentations)? Read the information on copyright and fair use; most likely, you can use just about any image you find.
Looking for an image to use for something that will be published (including blog posts)? Read the information on copyright and fair use, then check out the information on finding free images.
Images are subject to the laws of copyright and intellectual property. Before using a copyrighted image, you must determine if you can claim that your use falls under the Fair Use guidelines, explained below. If it does not, you will need to pay to use the image or find a different image that is copyright-free. (Not all images are restricted by copyright, but most are.)
Determining Fair Use
While US law establishes protections for copyright holders, it also defines limitations to their rights. One such example is the doctrine of fair use (Section 107). Individuals using copyrighted works for "purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research" can weigh their use against the four factors defined in Section 107 to determine if they need to seek permission from the copyright holder. The four factors are:
(1) The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
(2) The nature of the copyrighted work;
(3) The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
(4) The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.
9 Things to Think About Before Using Images
Before using a copyrighted image for any purpose, but especially for non-educational uses, consider the following:
#1: Why are you using the image? If it is “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research,” you can apply the four factors of fair use (see the information on Fair Use and Section 107 above) and maybe not have to worry about copyright. If you're using an image for personal or commercial reasons, you will need to consider getting permission and/or paying to use the image.
#2: Do you understand the term fair use? Read through the four factors of fair use that are outlined above, and think about if your use of an image meets the requirements for fair use. If you can prove fair use (and a judge would agree with you), you don't have to worry about copyright infringement, and you may use the image.
#3: Have you changed or transformed the image? Significantly altering an image or creating a "transformative work," so that what you create no longer resembles the original, could protect you against copyright infringement.
#4: Can you use a lower resolution or crop the image? When possible, use a low-resolution or thumbnail version of the image and, if you don't need the whole image, use only the part that you need.
#5: Are you willing to risk being sued or other legal action? The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protects copyright owners in the digital space. Make sure you feel confident that you can use the images; when in doubt, find another image that's in the public domain or royalty-free. You don't want to risk having legal actions taken against you!
#6: Does your image include people? If so, you may need to consider rights of privacy or publicity. To avoid privacy issues, only include images of adults in public places. And to avoid issues of publicity, don't include images of famous people if you're doing a commercial publication.
#7: Does your image include buildings built after 1990?These are also subject to copyright; use only images taken from a public place (like a sidewalk or street).
#8: If you aren't sure, make your own images. Take a photograph or draw your own pictures to avoid copyright-infringment, with one exception: photographs of artwork may be subject to copyright, so avoid using photographs of works of art that aren't in the public domain.
#9: Attribution is not the same as fair use. Citing an image has nothing to do with fair use. Providing attribution for an artist or linking to an image offers you no protection against copyright infringement; it only helps you avoid plagiarism. To determine if you can use the image, see the four-factors of fair use, outlined at the top of this page. To provide attribution and avoid plagiarism, see our information on citing images and the Creative Commons page on best practices for attribution.
Please note: This information is not legal advice.
This guide was created with the permission of Ohio Weslyan University 2/5/2019