Image Copyright Do’s and Don’ts

image copyrightsWhen I teach professional development classes, by far the topic that surprises attendees the most is the legal use of online images. And they’re not alone. On my blog, in educator forums, and in the virtual meetings I moderate, there is much confusion about what can be grabbed for free from online sites and what must be cited with a linkback, credit, author’s name, public domain reference, or specific permission from the creator. When I receive guest posts that include pictures, many contributors tell me the photo can be used because they include the linkback.

That’s not always true. In fact, the answer to the question…

“What online images can I use?”

typically starts with…

It depends…

To try to understand this topic in a five-minute blog post or thirty-minute webinar is a prescription for failure. It is too big a topic. Instead, I’ll cover only four main subtopics with a (very) quick overview and where you can find more resources to extend and self-pace your learning. Some of these resources are from my K-12 classes, so forgive me if they seem geared for youngsters (they are). Luckily, they are no less relevant:


In general terms, you must cite sources for:

  • facts not commonly known or accepted
  • exact words and/or unique phrase
  • reprints of diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • opinions that support research

Watch and discuss the online life of a photo posted by an unknowing student.

Digital privacy

Digital privacy is constantly under attack in a world where people post everything they do on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. 6 Degrees of Information reinforces how easy is it to find out about anyone by following the crumbs left during their online surfing. Next, watch Eduardo post pictures he considers innocent in Two Kinds of Stupid. Expand your learning by watching this video on Online Reputations.


Copyrights range from public domain—creative work that can be used without permission or notification—to intensely private—available only to view and usually on the host website.  Here’s a simple review of copyright law I use to start the discussion.

The law states that works of art created in the U.S. after January 1, 1978, are automatically protected by copyright once they are fixed in a tangible medium (like the Internet) BUT a single copy may be used for scholarly research (even if that’s a 2nd grade life cycle report) or in teaching or preparation to teach a class.

You can see details on the original law through this link. Or, watch the video, ‘Copyright Explained’, for an overview.

‘Fair Use’ is why students can grab online images without obtaining permission from the creator. It allows for a single use for educational purposes–nothing more. For more on this topic (especially if you have children), watch A Fair(y) Use Tale.

If you don’t qualify for Fair Use and are looking for public domain images through Google, the screenshot below shows how to adjust your search parameters to find only freely-available, legal online images:


The following sites provide mostly public domain images:

If you find an online image you like, figuring out if you can use it is often time-intensive but necessary. If you can’t find the copyright notice on the site that’s hosting the image, pick a different image. Here are two examples:

copyright pictures

The bottom one requires attribution—a linkback or credit–so I’ve provided it here:

Here’s a general collection of websites addressing copyrights and digital law that will help to address your specific areas of interest:

Make-your-own Graphics

A great way to avoid the worry about legally using online images is to create your own. You can use software such as Paint, Photoshop, and GIMP, or an image creation tool like:

If these don’t work for you, here’s a list of websites or apps with lots more options.

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and  Twenty-four DaysShe is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.


10 thoughts on “Image Copyright Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Great post. Many folks don’t seem to understand the problems around grabbing images from the web. Personally, I only post photographs I’ve taken myself.

    • I wish I’d do that. I encourage students to draw their own images using drawing tools or mash-ups on online tools to avoid any semblance of a copyright issue. Exactly for the reasons you use your own photos.

  2. A coworker of mine always just grabs images off the internet and tells us to make marketing materials with it. Thankfully, the rest of us know and follow the rules…

  3. This was one of the first lessons I learned when I was doing web graphics. I had not assumed that I could just use any picture, photo, or graphic on the internet but at first, I was surprised at all the rules. Not anymore though. 😉

  4. Thanks to earlier discussions with you, Jacqui, I’ve only been using images labeled for reuse or paintings in public domain because they’re very old. Still, I’m a bit nervous. Great and useful post here.

  5. This is great Jacqui. I just tried your example above on how to adjust the search parameters. Fantastic advice here. Thank you!

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