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Copyright & Web Images

Images on the open web are subject to copyright law in the same manner as any other creative work; there is no guarantee that an image is legally available for re-use just because it is freely accessible on the web.                                                       

That said, there are many cases in which copyright law permits re-use:

1. The image is in the public domain.

General rules:

  • works published in the U.S. before 1923 are public domain
  • works published in 1978 or later are definitely not public domain (unless they are U.S. gov’t works)
  • for works published between 1923-1978, it depends
    • Copyright Term and the Public Domain, a guide to copyright duration created by Peter Hirtle at Cornell University, is a great resource for researching whether a particular work is public domain.


2. The image is available under a Creative Commons (CC) license.

  • CC images are labeled as such. When using a CC image, be sure to provide proper attribution to the source and follow any restrictions that might apply (i.e. non-commercial, no derivatives).


3. The image is otherwise made available for re-use by the content provider.

  • Some websites permit you to re-use their images on your own website, as long as certain conditions are met (e.g. noncommercial use only). In these cases, you can find out whether re-use is permitted by looking at the website’s Terms & Conditions.


4. The image is copyrighted, but re-use qualifies as Fair Use.

  • In the context of using images on a website, you have a stronger Fair Use argument if you are directly commenting on or critiquing the image, or if you are using the image in a way that is transformative. For more information, see Analyzing Fair Use.
    • For example: “It is fair use for a library to use appropriate selections from collection materials to increase public awareness and engagement with these collections and to promote new scholarship drawing on them.” ARL code of Best Practices in Fair Use.
    • Fair Use likely does not apply when images are being used solely to make a web page more visually interesting; the use of the image should serve some instructional or educational purpose.
    • Keep in mind that if an image is subject to a license agreement (such as images from library databases), it can only be used according to what the license allows, even if Fair Use would otherwise allow for re-use.


5. You have permission from the copyright owner. For more information, see Getting Permission.

Image credit: 1923 by Uwe Schröder is licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0.

Image credit: Cloudy Blue Sky by Carlo Err is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.

Finding Images You Can Legally Use

Using public domain or open-licensed images can be a great way to avoid the hassles of getting permission. These sites offer millions of such images. However, not every image included in these sources is guaranteed to be freely usable for every purpose -- be sure to review the copyright information for the particular images you select.

Here are several excellent sources for images in the public domain and creative commons-licensed content:

Flickr Advanced Search - Under Any License, select “all creative commons”

Google Advanced Image Search - Use the “Usage Rights” field to limit by license type.

Cleveland Museum of Art - Open access image search for CC0-licensed images

J. Paul Getty Search Gateway - open content (public domain or no known rights) images available for re-use marked with "Download" 

Images of Empowerment - All photographs available under a CC BY NC 4.0

Library of Congress: Digital Collections - A free “digital record of American history and creativity.” Check photo information for rights information.

Library of Congress: Prints & Photographs Online Catalog - Photographs, prints, drawings, posters, and architectural drawings, and more.

NGA Images - Public domain artworks from the collections of the National Gallery of Art.

NYPL Digital Gallery - Illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints, photographs, and more, from the New York Public Library.

Open F|S - Over 40,000 Asian art images from the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery available for non-commercial use.

Unsplash - High quality images freely licensed for any use.

US Government Images -  Public domain images by topic, unless otherwise noted. Give credit to agency (and photographer if listed).

Notable collections:

Wellcome Images - All images are made available under Creative Commons licenses.

Wikimedia Commons - Browse or search for freely reusable images.

Wikipedia Public Domain Images - List of public domain image sources on the web.

Crediting Images: Best Practices

It can be difficult to determine the creator of a web image. To make giving credit easy, look for images that give you enough information to attribute them. Use the citation style you plan to use for the rest of your work, or use a general format as in the examples below.

Where should you give credit? Give credit underneath the image, at the bottom of the page, or in a credits section (e.g the last slide in a PowerPoint). 

At minimum, do your best to:
1. Link to back to the original work
2. Give credit to the image creator
3. Follow attribution instructions provided by the source  

Generic Image Credit Format:
Title by A. Creator is licensed under [license type].


Chinook salmon migrating

Chinook salmon migrating by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the Public Domain.

Chanda Burks with two sons

Chanda Burks with her two sons by Nina Robinson/The Verbatim Agency/Getty Images is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0.

Hubble Captures View of Mystic Mountain

Hubble Captures View of Mystic Mountain by NASA is in the public domain.