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Finding Images

Quality, Scholarly Images for Research, Publication; Scanning Recommendations and Copyright

Image Copyright

This page assumes you have an image. If the copyright to your image is unclear or not grantable, see the Getting Started page.

CORE TOOL! see Duke Scholarly Communication page (with blog and FAQs!

Fair Use vs Free Use. Is the image even copyrighted?! Many individuals and institutions claim a blanket rights policy. If you're using images of painting (not 3-D work) painted before the 20th century, the chances are it's public domain. The snake-in-the-grass issue is whether the photographer is claiming ownership under contract law. This does not apply for flat works (i.e., painting).

Creative Commons - A license agreement that any image-producer can make is something called "Creative Commons".  There are several possible levels (free-to-use but cite me; free-to-use for none-commercial purposes, etc.).  IF YOU LIMIT YOUR IMAGE SEARCHES TO WORK UNDER CC, IT'S A WHOLE LOT EASIER!

Fair Use - Most teaching- and paper-writing uses of images fall under the famous “fair use” provision (single use for scholarly purposes). Basically, fair use allows academics to use even copyrighted materials a single time to a limited audience without securing the permission of the copyright holder. This does not apply to educational use where an unmediated public would see it, particularly articles that are made open-source, archived theses and papers (there may be ways to still post these, however). Fair use is one of the most commonly misunderstood (frequently contested) copyright situations. Use the resources below to determine if your use counts as fair use.

Fair Use? Check out this site:

A Little more Formal discussion can be found at:

But can I use it?! Answer Guides

      Tip: Entities published before 1925 in the US (1919 if you're in California under the 9th Circuit Court) are consider public domain unless the copyright has specifically been renewed.

Using a foreign-published work?

Including work in a thesis/manuscript:

The Law - Image copyright is particular to each country.  You’re bound to the copyright of the country where the image was made or where the copyright holder resides.  In the US, image copyright falls under Title 17 (1909) variously revised 1973, 2011 and most recently 2014, known as the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 (P.L. 113-200). The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998) revised the law for electronic images. However, most accepted practice is based on legal precedent, not law. So, rather than citing law, copyright decisions are frequently determined by an important legal case.  

Some Cases -

Fair use:  Sundeman v. The Seajay Society, Inc., 142 F.3d 194 (4th Cir. 1998).

Reasonable, limited, and scholarly uses of materials are most likely to be fair use. A researcher at a nonprofit used quotations from an unpublished literary manuscript of historical and cultural interest, and she included those quotations in an analytical, oral presentation that she delivered to a scholarly society.

Beware of Jerks

Keep in mind that many institutions and individuals claim copyright on material they don’t have rights to, or works totally out of copyright altogether.  

  • Highsmith case. Getty and Alamy find publicly available images, copyright their vending of them, and then assert their right, even to the creator of the image.

Foreign countries can claim rights to cultural property, even sites and landscapes

Venice 'Time Machine' Project Suspended 


If you need to Get Permission for What You Use

Finding Rights Holders

Agreement Forms

License for Image Use Form - The University's form for getting permission to use an image/video.



Basic intellectual property rules for images

With the usual legal caveat that every case is unique, there are basic intellectual property use rules for academic images users in the US.

  • Any image created by a person dead more than 70 years ago is likely in the public domain (note that for three-dimensional works photographed, the photographer can claim a separate copyright).
  • Images appearing in books printed before 1923 are copyright free (for that particular published image).
  • Any image, regardless of copyright, can be copied (once) and used personally in a non-distributive form for personal scholarship/study.

Something to keep in mind . . .

  • US intellectual property rights revolve around remunerative ability.  If your use of an image does not impair the copyright holder from selling copies of the image further, you have a situation that litigation would not likely award damages.


Citing Images

Regardless of whether your image is under copyright, it is ethical to provide basic information on your image, not matter how famous.  Copyrighted images will state who and what to acknowledge;  non-copyright protected images still should give the artist, standard title (if one), and location:

  • For Example:  Michelangelo.  Creation of Adam.  Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museum.