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How to Find Images & How to Use Them: Citation & Fair Use

An introduction to searching for images and using them

A researcher or writer is responsible to exercise due diligence to document as much as possible about an image, including:

  • Artist, photographer's, or creators name, when known and relevant;
  • Title of the image (if known), or a brief description of image;
  • Date and location of the image, when relevant;
  • Ownership information and source of the images (such as a person, estate, museum, library collection);
  • Genre of Work, and Material if known;
  • Dimensions of the work, if known (especially for art works: example: "Painting. Oil on canvas, 40 cm x 40 cm");)

Someone created every image.  Images created before 1923 are "public domain," but reproductions of those images may be under copyright.  Copyright means that a person or organizations retains an exclusive right to make copies for some period of time. Proper identification and citation protects against plagiarism, and following Fair Use guidelines protects against copyright infringement.

Please note that this guide is advice on best practices and considerations in documenting and citing images, and does not constitute legal advice on obtaining permissions.

"Fayerweather Island Lighthouse" (Black Rock Harbor, Bridgeport, CT) by borazlos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

What is Fair Use?

Fair use (117 U.S.C. §107) is a doctrine in the copyright law of the United States (U.S. Code §17) that permits limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission from the copyright holder. Fair use is intended to balance the interests of copyright holders with the public interest in the wider distribution and use of creative works by allowing as a defense to copyright infringement claims certain limited uses that might otherwise be considered infringement. These uses are usually academic and educational.

Fair Use is never closely defined in the law.  Instead the law prescribes analysis of four factors:

Purpose of use
  • Nonprofit, educational, scholarly, or research use;
  • Transformative use, re-purposing, re-contextualizing, or creating a new purpose or meaning.
Nature or type of work
  • Published, fact-based content
Amount used
  • Using only the amount needed for a given purpose;
  • Using small or less significant amounts of the whole work (or image)
Market effect
  • There would be no effect, or there is no market;
  • It is not possible to obtain permission to use the work.

It is necessary to weigh all four factors to decide whether a fair use exemption seems to apply to a proposed reuse.  For this reason, using images that are openly available for public use is often the best practice.

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.

Additional special considerations for using images:

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.

Photographs of works of art may involve the rights of the work's creator/copyright holder. Consider using photographs of 2-D works in the public domain-- these are usually not protected by copyright.

Buildings designed after Dec. 1, 1990 are copyrighted. Consider using photographs taken from a public place.

What are Best Practices for Using Images?

Best Practice:

The Visual Resources Association (VRA) in its Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research and Study (.pdf, 2011) notes that use of images in scholarship is fundamental to the advancement of collective knowledge. The VRA suggests that researchers are best positioned to assert fair use if:

  • Significant commentary, or other original content, accompanies images included in the research;
  • Conversely, images included in research are subject of commentary or illustrate a scholarly argument, and are not included for purely aesthetic purposes;
  • Images are incorporated at a size/resolution necessary to make the best scholarly argument;
  • Attributions are provided to the copyright owner of the image, where known;
  • The circulation and distribution of the thesis through online websites or repositories is consistent with academic practices or requirements set forth by the degree-granting institution.

Best Practice:

Do not include images within a bibliography of "works cited." It is common, instead, to create a separate list of images (or figures) and their source, such as photographer (even if it's you) or collection. It may be useful to also include location, e.g., museum, geographic reference, address, etc.

Best Practice:

Check special terms of use that apply:

  • Click on "Terms of Use," "Legal," copyright statement, or similar option (see example on the right);
  • Read captions and collection description;
  • Remember that Fair Use still applies even if site says "all rights reserved."