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Research Guides

Finding and Using Images: Copyright/Fair Use

Use It!

Fair Use: It's The Law


It is just as important to document your image sources as it is to cite the books and articles you used in your research.

Documenting a source acknowledges that the photograph, illustration, diagram, etc. is the rightful intellectual property of its creator. Normally, the citation for an image is placed immediately beneath the image in your paper or PowerPoint slide, NOT in the bibliography as with other source materials. The form of the citation will depend on the type of resource (book, article, or website) and the citation style requested by your professor (APA, MLA, Chicago style, or another format). See the links in the center column for guidance.

If you plan to use the image in a class presentation, term paper, or course-related project, you do not need to obtain copyright clearance. For such educational or instructional uses, you only need to document the image source as described above. However, be sure to comply with any stipulations on the provider's website that restrict the use, reproduction, distribution, or modification of images.

Factors of Fair Use

In some cases you can use a work that is not in the public domain without seeking permission.  This is known as "fair use."  The problem with fair use is that there is no way to be certain that yours is a fair use until a court decides.  However, like all rights, if you don't exercise fair use, then eventually you'll lose it.

Below are a few questions that you should ask yourself when trying to determine if your use of an image would be considered fair or not.  These "four factors" should be weighed against each other; no single one counts more heavily than another.  In general, using a small portion of another's work for educational purposes is considered fair.

1. What is the character of the use?  Is it for educational use or to criticize/parody, or do you hope to make some money?  Courts usually favor educational uses over commercial ones.

2. What is the nature of the work to be used?  Is it primarily factual, or imaginative?  Is the work published or unpublished?  Courts tend to rule against uses of creative works and those that have not yet been published.

3. How much of the work will you use?  Only a small amount, or a significant amount?  Amount is measured both quantitatively and qualitatively.  If you're only using a small portion of a work, the court is more likely to rule in your favor.

4. If this kind of use were widespread, what effect would it have on the market for the original?  Would the copyright owner be losing money?  Courts usually favor those uses with little or no adverse market effect.

For more on fair use, see the University of Texas' Copyright Crash Course.




The information contained in this

page is for informational purposes only.

It is not legal advice. 

Creative Commons

Content which has a Creative Commons license is free to download, adapt, distribute, and transmit without having to ask permission. 

Depending on the license, however, there may be certain conditions: you may only be able to use the content for educational purposes, you may have to give attribution, etc.  (Licensing characteristics can be found to the left of this box). 

Because licenses vary, always be sure to check the exact terms of the license before using an image.


   Attribution: others can use the work however they like, so long as they give credit

   No Derivative Work: other can copy, display, or perform your work, but it must be verbatim

   Non-Commercial: other can use your work, but for non-commercial purposes only

   Share Alike: others can distribute derivative works, but only under the same terms as the original license