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Finding and Using Online Images Ethically: Copyright, Fair Use, Public Domain

How to find images online while following copyright law, fair use guidelines, and properly citing images.


This guide will help you understand copyright and other author licenses, such as Creative Commons licenses, so that you can 1) find, 2) ethically reuse, and 3) cite or provide appropriate attribution for images that you use or repurpose in your scholarly and creative works. 

Check with your instructor to see what their expectations are for individual course assignments. If you plan to share your work with an audience beyond your classroom you should follow the following legal and ethical guidelines carefully! Examples of how you might share your work with a broader audience include: 

  1. posting your work publicly online (including in our institutional repository, DigitalCommons@CSB/SJU)
  2. formally publishing your work
  3. sharing your work with a larger audience during a Celebrating Scholarship and Creativity Day presentation or at a professional conference

Copyright Law

You should assume that all materials you find online are copyrighted!

Copyright Law of the United States provides legal protection for intellectual property. (Intellectual property refers to products of the mind or products of human creativity. It is a broad expression of law that includes other bodies of law, such as copyright, trademarks, trade secrets, and patents.)
If an online document specifies that it is public domain, be sure to verify the source!

Copyright Protections
Copyright law protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. It covers both published and unpublished works.
Copyright does NOT protect facts, ideas, signature art styles, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed.
A work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is created in a tangible form of expression.

How long is a work protected under copyright law?
If a work was created after 1978, it is protected for the life of the creator + 70 years, unless the copyright is extended by the publisher or other owner.
Anonymous or corporate works are protected for 95 years from the work's first publication or 120 years from the work's year of creation.

© 2021 All Rights Reserved

What rights are reserved?

Copyright ownership gives the holder of the copyright in an original work of authorship six exclusive rights.

The right to:
1. Reproduce and make copies of an original work
2. Prepare derivative works based on the original work
3. Distribute copies to the public by sale or another form of transfer, such as rental or lending
4. Publicly perform the work
5. Publicly display the work
6. Perform sound recordings publicly through digital audio transmission

Fair Use Doctrine

The Doctrine of Fair Use

Fair use generally applies to nonprofit, educational purposes that do not affect the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. When an information source is copyrighted, you should cite it if you quote or paraphrase it in your paper or speech.

Fair Use allows use of copyrighted materials without permission under certain circumstances, such as:

  • Research & Scholarship
  • Non-profit education
  • Parody & Satire
  • News reporting
  • Criticism & commentary

There are four factors of Fair Use:

  1. Purpose of the use (Is it for non-profit or commercial use?)
  2. Nature of the copyrighted material (Does it encourage creative expression?)
  3. Amount used (How much are you using?)
  4. Effect on the market of the original  (Does your  use impact the copyright owner's original work, both existing and future?

Fair use is:

  • A right (not just a privilege) according to an “equitable rule of reason.”
  • Not an infringement of copyright
  • A social bargain that offers exclusive rights in copyrighted works to encourage artists to produce culture

Is your use of a work TRANSFORMATIVE?
Transformative work does not have to be a literal transformation of the work – You can put the work in a NEW CONTEXT where it performs a NEW FUNCTION

  • Use public domain reference material whenever possible or obtain permission from the owner if copyrighted
  • Try to avoid using the reference material in its entirety – use pieces
  • Use the reference material to guide you someplace original – don't just cut and paste
  • Make sure your use of the reference is sufficiently transformative

Works in the Public Domain

Public Access does NOT mean Public Domain!

Works that are in the public domain are NOT protected by copyright and may be used freely, without obtaining permission from, or compensating, the copyright owner. Being in the public domain means:

  • The copyright may have expired (confirm that a work's copyright was not renewed or extended by the copyright holder)
    • As of January 1, 2024, works including books, films, artwork, and sheet music created before 1929. This does NOT include audio recordings
    • For the first time ever, over 400,000 audio recordings created before 1923 entered the public domain in 2022, due to the Music Modernization Act (2018).
    • Audio recordings created before 1924 entered the public domain on January 1, 2024.
  • The work never had a copyright (remember, copyright does not protect facts, ideas, discoveries, signature art styles, systems, or methods of operation)
  • Work created by employees of the US federal government within the scope of their employment (for instance NASA images)

Note 1: Finding a work in a public space (e.g., in an online search) does not necessarily mean something is in the public domain – copyrighted works are frequently posted or shared in violation of copyright. If something you find online indicates that a particular work is within the public domain, check to verify that this is true!

Note 2: Even if a work has entered the public domain, you should credit the work’s author/creator, if possible, when you reuse or repurpose any of the work’s content.

Open Licenses

Open licenses enable creators to proactively grant certain rights in advance, while still retaining copyright

Creative Commons (CC) is an example of open licenses.
CC provides a set of copyright licenses and tools that can be adapted on varying levels set by the creator

What are Creative Commons Licenses? Video (1:57)
CC currently has 6 levels that define:

  • Attribution
  • Derivative work
  • Licensing share terms 
  • Non-commercial or commercial use

CC license use
CC = Creative Commons
BY = creator (who it is BY)
SA = Share Alike license terms
NC = Non-Commercial only
ND = No Derivatives

Open Access allows free access of published material through digital repositories. The rights vary between sources.

Fine Arts Librarian

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Bonnie Finn
Clemens Library B102
(320) 363-5513