This article sets out to explain some of the general principles in law which apply to using and re-using digital images, and provide guidelines for good practice in referencing and attributing sources when sharing content online that others have created.
Things You Can Do With Images You Have Created
In theory, you can do pretty much anything you like with photographs you have taken yourself and other images you create; however, if a photograph includes people who can be personally identified then it is a good idea to check that they are happy to have their picture shared online before doing so, as some people prefer to keep their digital footprint light. No different to clearing permissions with students before you photograph them or video them in class, really.
If you or the organisation you work for plan to host an event where you will be taking photos, then you should consider incorporating a model release statement into the sign-in sheet or registration form, in case you want to use the images for promotion or publicity at some point.
If you take photographs of artistic works (such as paintings, sculptures, etc) that are copyrighted, you may need permission from the person who owns the copyright to the artistic work or the gallery where the works are being shown if you want to share the images with a wider audience.
In theory you don’t need to attach a copyright notice or usage license to images you own the rights for, but it is a good idea to do so as it clarifies the types of uses that are allowed, and any uses that are not.
Things You Can Do With Public Domain Images
In theory, there are no restrictions on the way you can use images which are in the public domain, although it is worth noting that a significant proportion of images shared on the web which are described as being in the public domain are wrongly labelled as being so.
Copyright is widely misunderstood, and many people seem to think that anything uploaded to the internet is automatically in the public domain. It can often be difficult to establish who owns the rights to an image, or whether or not the person who owns the copyright has given permission for it to be shared. In view of this, it is a good idea to stick to using reliable sources that you can trust when searching for public domain images to use for educational purposes.
The Flickr Commons search link below is a good way to search and browse collections of public domain images that have been uploaded by credible and reliable sources, such as museums, art galleries, and government agencies:
Technically speaking, you don’t generally need to credit the uploader or the photographer or link back to the source when you use public domain images, although it is good practice to do so and it is a way of thanking people and acknowledging that they have shared something useful that you have benefited from.
Recording information about the source of a public domain image can also be useful if you need to verify where you downloaded it from at a later date.
See below for an example of how to credit and link back to a public domain image.
Barack Obama Image: Public Domain (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Things You Can Do With Images Licensed For Creative Commons Commercial Use
You can modify share, and distribute images licensed under CC BY for pretty much any purpose including commercially, but you must credit the author and attribute them in the manner that they have specified in order to comply with the license. For example, some photographers may require you to use exact wording, and/or provide a link back to their site. Paying attention to conditions attached to attributing other people’s work is important, because if you don’t you could run into problems at a later date.
Images licensed under CC BY-SA can be copied, shared, and modified, but once again you must credit the author in the manner they have specified. You must also share any modified versions of images you create under the same or a similar license as the license attached to the original work.
See the images below for examples of crediting and linking back to a CC BY-SA image, where the photographer has stipulated how the image should be credited.
Crediting an original image licensed under CC BY-SA:
Image © Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Crediting a modified version of the image, which I’ve licensed to share for reuse:
Image © Copyright Steve Daniels . Modified by Sue Lyon-Jones and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Images licensed under CC BY-ND can be shared and used commercially, but you are not permitted to modify or adapt them.
To illustrate how this licence works, I created the header image for this post below, and licensed it under CC BY-ND.
To create the image, I blended together two separate public domain images obtained from here and here. You can share this image or reuse it for any purpose you like, but you must credit it to me and link back to my blog if you do, and you aren’t permitted to modify it or alter it in any way. You have to use it exactly how it is.
Having said this, you are free to use the original images that I used to create the image above in any way you like, as they are both in the Public Domain.
Using Images That Have Non-Commercial, Creative Commons Licenses
In theory, Creative Commons non-commercial licenses ought to be a good choice for educational use but unfortunately, there is wide disagreement as to what actually constitutes commercial use. I imagine most people would consider that using an image to teach in a way that doesn’t directly involve money changing hands amounts to non-commercial use; however, there are people who vehemently disagree with this interpretation, as some of the comments on Phil Wade’s blog in response to Anthony Gaughan’s guest post, “Breaking The Law in The Language Classroom“, illustrate here:
Even the people who created the licenses can’t agree on this particular point, which puts teachers who want to use works licensed as Creative Commons non-commercial in a difficult position, as their idea of what amounts to commercial use may differ from that of the person who attached a non-commercial license to the work.
The best way to clear up any doubt as to whether or not the way you propose to use an image matches the intentions of the person who owns the rights to it is to contact them and ask them to provide clarification.
In situations where an author (or a group licensing a collection of works) has publicly stated how their work can be used, then that ought to be enough for you to rely on. For instance, this blog post on the eltpics ideas site for teachers explains how educators are permitted to use images that have been shared and uploaded to the eltpics Flickr account under a Creative Commons, Non-Commercial, Attribution license.
Images Licensed Under Traditional Copyright, All Rights Reserved
If you want to use images with traditional copyright attached to them, then the sensible approach is to contact the person who owns the copyright and ask for their permission, as the fair use provisions are complex and very limited when it comes to using digital media for educational use.
Avoiding Some Common Pitfalls
Don’t assume that images you find online are licensed under the same license as a page they appear on, as this often isn’t the case. For example, Voice of America news reports are in the public domain, but the images that they use to illustrate their articles are often sourced from agencies and licensed for use on the VOA site only.
You should not assume that images shared by a particular person will always have the same license attached to them, as this often isn’t the case. For instance, the personal photos that I share on eltpics are licensed under a Creative Commons, Non-Commercial license, but the images I use on my website may be copyright or have a different license attached to them.
Tips for good practice when re-using images created by others:
- Check who owns the rights to any images you propose to use
- Ask for permission before using images, where necessary
- Make sure you understand the terms of any licenses attached to images you plan to use
- Remember to credit your sources
Updated: The IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG and MELTA held a workshop on copyright law on Saturday 22 September 2012. Click on the link below for more information about the workshop, and to view the slides:
Copyright – what can we do?
Related Posts and Further Reading
Copyright, Plagiarism and Digital Literacy – My Guest Post on Teaching Village
Copyrights Or Copy Wrongs…?
JISC Digital Media – Copyright and Digital Images
This article by Sue Lyon-Jones is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, link back to this site, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.
Header image credit: Sue Lyon-Jones CC BY-ND
This post provides my interpretation of the law as it stands regarding the use of online use of images at the time of writing. It is accurate to the best of my knowledge, but it is provided for information and guidance only. It is not intended to be legal advice and it should not be relied on as a substitute for it.