Copyright Law and Free Images

copyright This post is a mashup of three separate posts by the talented Olga LaPlante, Instructional Designer for UNE Online.

We often view copyright as a nuisance, and it may be in certain instances. But along with protecting the rights of the owners and creators of intellectual property, copyright provides for rights of users to view, distribute, modify and do other things with certain materials for a fee or free of charge, such as under Fair Use.

What is Fair Use?

Fair use, (in US copyright law) is the doctrine that brief excerpts of copyrighted material may, under certain circumstances, be quoted verbatim for purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research, without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.


Fair Use guidelines start with the premise that materials are used for educational purposes, and then considers several factors to establish whether such use is warranted. Assume that unless explicitly stated so, all resources online are copyright protected, so you may not just grab an image and save it to display in your course. Linking to the image may also be problematic.

Where can you find free images?

There are so many sources! Here are a few:

  • Your own images and icons
    • If you can’t find the perfect image – have you considered just going out and snapping the picture yourself?
  • Creative Commons image search service
    • You should always verify that the work is actually under a Creative Commons license by following the link. Since there is no registration to use a Creative Commons license, Creative Commons has no way to determine what has and hasn’t been placed under the terms of a Creative Commons license. If you are in doubt, you should contact the copyright holder directly, or try to contact the site where you found the content.
      Do not assume that the results displayed in this search portal are under a Creative Commons license.
  • Iconfinder
    • There are nearly two million icons to choose from – many of them are free.
  • Google!
  • Public Domain
    • Images that are in the public domain free you of the obligation to pay anyone for the right to use them. It is essentially an online library of images.
  • Pixabay
    • Pixabay is a website which hosts and allows you to download high-quality images that you can use and reuse any way you want! They don’t even require attribution, although that is always nice to mention. The only caution is that you will also see “sponsored images,” but they are clearly marked, with a watermark. They are NOT free, but they went out of their way to make it very obvious, so there is really no confusion.
      And as a nice touch, you can always buy your favorite volunteer photographer a coffee by donating to the site.
  • Getty Open Content Images
    • Getty’s search tools are incredibly robust, and play on the strengths of the Getty image library’s historical focus. Really, if you think there is an old photograph or illustration that may be pertinent to your subject, look here. You will be surprised by what they have.
  • Flickr Commons and Flickr Creative Commons
    • Flickr is an interesting addition to this list, as the images there are supplied by everyday users. This is both a strength and a weakness. Searching the Flickr public domain (be sure to check that in the search parameters!) image library can be, by turns, incredibly frustrating or rewarding. The quality of images varies greatly, as does their style. Just remember about attribution, or plagiarism is your next concern.
  • Public Domain Review
    • Public Domain Review is less concerned with providing users a robust search engine than it is with curating an interesting collection of media, not just images. The images come with very careful citations and write-ups that provide a great deal of context for where they come from.
  • Death to Stock Photos
    • Under the license, you may display a DTTSP photo as you please, reproduce it, add it to a collection, and make adaptations of it. You can read the simplified plain English license here.
  • Unsplash
    • Over 200,000 free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos brought to you by the world’s most generous community of photographers.
  • Hubspot
    • Hubspot offers a repository of stock photos that anyone can use completely for free. They hired a photographer and took a ton of photos to give away for free – no royalties, fees, or attribution required. Super nice of them.

How do you attribute photos?

Say you find the perfect image – but it’s not labeled for reuse – what now? Creative commons has a very thorough post on best practices for attribution, on their wiki site. Essentially you really just want to be giving credit where credit is due. If you know the TASL (Title, Author, Source, License) of the material, include it.

If you have other resources that you commonly use, please write them in the comments below. Or leave a comment regarding your experience using the resources above!

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4 responses to “Copyright Law and Free Images”

  1. William Sofia says:

    Thanks so much for that. I have been doing some research and looking all over for that information!

    Don’t wait, get that idea out of your head and into the real world where your passion can make an impact. Basic Broo

  2. Laura says:

    Thank you for posting such a valuable resource! Just bookmarked it for future reference!

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