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Images and Copyright



Photographs receive automatic copyright protection just as any other work does, yet are more often the subject of copyright infringement due to the ease of republishing photos on the Internet, often without attribution.


Because photos are so often published without attribution, it can be difficult to locate the actual owner of an image’s copyright. Difficulty in locating the owner does not, however, provide a strong defense to copyright infringement.


There are a number of organizations which license notable and stock photographs from their vast collections. It may take a dedicated search to produce the rights information if you are searching for a specific photograph. These organizations have numerous licensing plans, ranging from one-time fees for unlimited use to royalty-based systems


All images -- in both digital and print formats, are resources that should be used responsibly. Most databases and websites provide information about copyrights and how their images can be used. It is important to read this information carefully and to comply with usage guidelines.  Usage guidelines can vary considerably, so be alert to differences and details.


It is also important to note that the courts have found that the use of thumbnail images on websites is considered "fair use" under copyright law. This is because the courts found that shrinking the size of the image renders it undesirable for anyone trying to reproduce a high quaility work.  Therefore, the market for the original work is not compromised and the use is considered transformative, which is one of the factors in fair use analysis. See, Kelly v. Arriba-Soft, 336 F.3d. 811 (9th Cir. 2003).

Also keep in mind that many photographs that simply depict an object may not be subject to copyright - in other words if the photograph documents something such as a picture of a building or even a work of art in a museum it may be used freely. Click here for a bibliography of fair use resources for images.


For more information about copyright, please consult our copyright guide

How to Properly Cite Images

There are a number of different citation styles including but not limited to APA, MLA, AP, Chicago, etc. This citation guide from Dartmouth College provides some guidance on how to cite images using these different styles. It is important to stay consistent with style usage through out any particular document.

If you are using images pursuant to a Creative Commons license follow this link to the Creative Commons page explaining how to properly cite to such materials.

Open Attribute is a useful tool that makes citing properly to a Creative Commons source simple.

Any items obtained from the web or scanned from a print source should be attributed to the owner of the copyrighted work. This includes photographs, paintings, or other works of art, tables, graphs, and other illustrations from primary or secondary source materials. Images from royalty free clip art, such as the clip art available in Microsoft Word or Power Point, do not need to be cited.

As a general rule, the following elements are needed in an image citation:

  • artist's name, if known
  • title of image, if known (if not use a description)
  • institution where held, if known
  • title of article or book if applicable
  • author of article or book if applicable
  • title and date of journal if applicable
  • database name if applicable
  • date of access if online
  • date of publication if originally from print material
  • URL if applicable

Tin Eye - Reverse Image Search

TinEye is a reverse image search engine. You can submit an image to TinEye to find out where it came from, how it is being used, if modified versions of the image exist, or to find higher resolution versions.

Stock Photos

Stock photos are often generic images, and can be licensed for less money than those of larger image banks. Nearly all images on stock photograph sites are available for one-time payments with no royalties, meaning that once you acquire the rights to the image you don’t have to worry about payments for each and every reproduction.