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Find images to use while keeping on the right side of copyright

Guidelines and resources on the use of images.

Let's say you're writing an article about vaccines and you'd like to include a photograph of Louis Pasteur, a graphic image of a vaccine bottle and syringes, and an illustration of how vaccines work. How do you find suitable images while observing copyright or other restrictions?

Many people would start their search using Google Images, just as they use Google to search for information. But if you think that images displayed through a Google Image search are all openly available for reuse, think again.

Google doesn't own the images it displays in search results. It indexes the images and brings them to your screen at low resolution, under a fair use principle that's been supported in the courts. The argument is that the display of thumbnail-sized, low-resolution images does not affect copyright holders' ability to market their images.

Although the print is small, images from a Google search usually come with this caveat: Image may be subject to copyright. You can use an Advanced Search in Google Images and filter results by usage rights — for example, "free to use or share" or "free to use, share or modify."

Another option is to search sites that feature Creative Commons (CC) licenses, which offer a range of reuse-specific options. The easiest way to do these searches is through the Creative Commons Search, a site lets you "find content you can share, use and remix" in Flickr, Wikimedia Commons, and Fotopedia, among other search services. You should double-check that the results displayed through these searches are under a CC license. The images will generally require attribution and may have other restrictions.

The bottom line is that when searching for images on the Web, your working assumption should be that every image you find is copyrighted, even if it doesn't have any description, identification or caption. To reuse an image, if it is not labeled for reuse or out of copyright, you would need to evaluate whether you have a strong fair use case, by walking through copyright law's four-factor test.

For guidance, see the MIT Libraries resource, Using Images: Copyright & Fair Use, prepared by Ellen Duranceau, program manager for the MIT Libraries’ Office of Scholarly Publishing & Licensing.

Image Resources for Research and Scholarship

MIT faculty, researchers and students have options beyond generic online image searches. Jolene de Verges of MIT's Rotch Library has curated the Finding Images guide, which focuses on images for research and scholarship. It provides links to several free, open resources, including:
MIT community members can generally use these images for research and teaching, through the terms of the license agreements and/or the principle of fair use.

More Image Sources to Explore

The public collections listed in the Finding Images guide are also a good starting place for anyone who want to use images for non-scholarly purposes, though there may be restrictions on use.

Images in the public domain are available for use without permission. Many .gov websites — such as NASA Multimedia — include images created by the U.S. government that are therefore in the public domain. Another popular site worth scouting out is Public Domain Images.

If you're looking for images of MIT, check out the CPS Photo Library, hosted on Flickr. More than 1,000 photos are available at no cost, for exclusive use by the MIT community. While Communication Production Services (CPS) curates its own library, it has also created galleries of MIT photos taken by others. Photos in galleries are not owned by CPS; if you are interested in using one of these photos, contact the image owner for permission.

If your group or department, lab or center has a communications budget, stock photos and images are another option. In most cases, you will want to buy or license images, paying a one-time fee for the right to use an image an unlimited number of times. Well-known stock image sites include Bigstock, Corbis, Fotolia, iStockphoto and Shutterstock.

Now, have you zeroed in on those vaccine images you were looking for? If you have questions or concerns about reusing any image you've found, you can send email to

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