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A guide to copyright law as it relates to academic research, teaching, and publication.

Copyright & Web Images

Partially peeled sticker with a computer pictogram that reads "Internet".

Images on the open web are subject to copyright law in the same manner as any other creative work; there is no guarantee that an image is legally available for re-use just because it is freely accessible on the web.

That said, there are many cases in which copyright law permits re-use:

1. The image is a public domain work. Generally, anything published in the U.S. 95 or more years ago is in the public domain. For more info, check out the Peter Hirtle's Copyright Term and the Public Domain.

2. The image is available under a Creative Commons license. CC images are labeled as such. When using a CC image, be sure to provide proper attribution to the source.

3. The image is otherwise made available for re-use by the content provider. Some websites permit you to re-use their images on your own website, as long as certain conditions are met (e.g. noncommercial use only). In these cases, you can find out whether re-use is permitted by looking at the website’s Terms & Conditions.

4. The image is copyrighted, but re-use qualifies as Fair Use. In the context of using images on a website, you have a stronger Fair Use argument if you are directly commenting on or critiquing the image, or if you are using the image in a way that is transformative. 

  • Fair Use likely does not apply when images are being used solely to make a web page more visually interesting; the use of the image should serve some instructional or educational purpose.
  • Keep in mind that if an image is subject to a license agreement (such as images from library databases), it can only be used according to what the license allows, even if Fair Use would otherwise allow for re-use. See the Using Database Images section of this page.
  • For more information, see Applying Fair Use.

5. You have permission from the copyright owner. For more information, see Getting Permission.

Image credit: The Internet by Mikael Altemark via Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) webpage.  

Crediting Images: Best Practices

It can be tricky to determine the creator of a web image. To make giving credit easy, look for images that give you enough information to attribute them.

At minimum, do your best to:

  1. Link to back to the original work.
  2. Give credit to the image creator.
  3. Follow attribution instructions provided by the source.

Generic Image Credit Format:

Title by Creator Name, via Source (License Type).


Example image 1: photograph of a cat in a sink.
Image credit: Jack in Sink (again) by J. Smith, via (CC NC-BY 2.0).

Example image 2: photograph of a hand picking up grocery into a basket in supermarket.
Image credit: 13694 by A. Mills, via CDC.

Example image 3: photograph of Mrs. Claire Cumberbatch leading classroom oath of allegiance.
Image credit: Mrs. Claire... by D. DeMarisco, via Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection.

Finding Images You Can Legally Use

Here are several excellent sources for images in the public domain and creative commons-licensed content:

Using Database Images

The Library provides NYU faculty and students with access to a number of great image repositories, including the images available in Artstor and Artnet. These images are high resolution and free for use by anyone with a Net ID and access to Library electronic materials.

However, use of these database images are subject to license terms and conditions that limit how you may reuse the material. While you are free to view images on the database and even download them for your own study in many cases, you are not permitted to post database images to public websites, including your own personal websites or study sites, such as Study Blue. Doing so is a violation of the user terms of the database.

If you wish to use any images you find in your own scholarship, such as a thesis, dissertation, or article, you will need to contact the database owner for permission to republish the images. You can find out more in the section on Getting Permission.

Image Credit Generator

Wikimedia Deutschland has a useful image credit generator for images from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.