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Finding and Using Images

A guide to searching for and reusing digital images for UMSL students and faculty.

The Basics of Copyright

As a student, especially in disciplines like history, communications, art, etc., you may need to search for images and use them as part of class presentations, research papers, or assignments in other formats.  Finding images is increasingly easy due to the Internet, but many of these images belong to other people, even if you do not immediately see a copyright notice.

Fortunately, due to a principle called fair use, you are often able to reuse other people's photographs, digital artwork, etc. under certain conditions.  You can do so because one of the following is true:

  1. The image is copyrighted, but you are using the image for an educational purpose (see below).
  2. The image is not copyrighted.  It is either in the public domain (see below) or the creator has decided to make it freely available.

Please read through this guidance before reusing other people's images.  This page does not constitute legal advice.  If you are unsure about a specific situation, contact the library or your professor.

The Basics: What is copyright and how does it apply to images?


Any time you create something - a photograph, essay, digital artwork, sculpture, etc. - you own a copyright on that work; it is your intellectual property.  Because you own the copyright, it is illegal for someone else to claim it as theirs.  They cannot copy your design or words, put their name on it, or sell it.  You automatically have a copyright on your work, even if you have not published it, for your lifetime plus another 70 years.

Most images you find on the Internet belong to someone else.  There are some circumstances in which you can reuse online images, especially as a student or educator, due to the principle of fair use.

How do I know whether an image is copyrighted?


Assume that most images that you find are under copyright unless indicated otherwise.

Important exceptions:

  • The image is in the public domain.  Works pass into the public domain when the copyright expires.  As of January 2022, works frin 1926 or earlier are in the public domain!  You can reuse, modify, profit from, etc. any of these images or other materials. 
    • Note that academic integrity often requires you to cite your sources, even if the image is no longer under copyright.
  • The image has been produced by a government agency.  All US government documents, including images - regardless of publication year - are automatically available without needing to request permission or pay a fee.
  • The image has been made freely available by its creator - e.g., via a Creative Commons license.  See our Creative Commons page for further details.

Fair Use

Fair use allows you to reuse other people's work under certain circumstances, which you can view in greater detail by visiting the US Copyright Office website.

Fair use guidelines are intentionally broad - there is no checklist or black and white situation where a circumstance is "always" or "definitely" fair use.

Instead, a given situation can be more likely or less likely to be considered fair use.  Ask yourself the following questions.  Just because your answer to one or more of the questions makes your purpose "less likely" to be fair use does not automatically mean that you can't use the image.

  1. Is your use educational / nonprofit, or commercial?  Is your use "transformative"? If you are using the image for class or research (i.e., not making money), then it is more likely to be considered fair use.  "Transformative" means that you have substantially altered or added to the work so its purpose no longer resembles the original - for example, by including academic commentary or criticism.
  2. Is the work creative or factual? Factual works are more likely to be considered fair use than creative ones.  Although many images would be considered highly creative, you can still often use them in an appropriate classroom / research context.
  3. Did you use all of or a substantial part of the work, or just a small part of it?  Using images often requires you to reproduce the entire work, but again, doing so is often considered acceptable in many educational situations.
  4. Will people use your version of the work instead of buying it /accessing it from the original creator?  This question might be especially relevant if you are making your assignment or research publicly available on the Internet (as opposed to, for example, an in-class presentation).

Examples - Likely considered fair use


  • You are giving an in-person presentation to your photography class.  On one slide, you include a photograph which demonstrates a class concept that you found via an online newspaper.  You give credit to the original source and include commentary about how it demonstrates the photography concept.
  • You are writing an art history research paper.  You include several images of 20th century paintings (with appropriate citations) alongside commentary about common features among them.  You submit your paper to your professor for an end-of-term assignment.


Examples - Likely NOT considered fair use


  • You are giving an in-person presentation to your photography class.  To decorate your slides, you use some doodles you found on Google Images from various websites.
  • You start an art history blog and copy and paste various images of 20th century paintings around your website.  You assume most of your visitors will be familiar with the artwork, so you don't include information about where you got the images or why you are using them.