There are many great images out there, and they’re a convenient way to illustrate a particular point for your students, or to support an argument in your research publication. But many of these images are copyright, so how can you tell if you can use them? And when might you need to get permission to use an image?

As with all copyright questions, the short answer is “it depends”, so we’ll explore the question in more detail, starting with the easy stuff. Further information is available via the UTS Library’s Use Content site.

Scenarios of image use

🏞 My image will be used for teaching and learning purposes

In this case, UTS staff can use whatever you like and don’t need any permissions, provided the image is to be used in printed format, or if published online within a UTS login environment such as Canvas. The image might come from any legal internet site, or from a library database. You should always properly credit the creator or source of any images used. If you want to edit an image, this is fine as well, provided you don’t alter it in a way that might mislead or cause offence.

🎆 My image will be published online, but is purely for the purpose of research, review, criticism or satire

If you are writing an article for one of these purposes, then you are allowed some flexibility – even if that article might be published in a commercial academic journal or as part of an edited academic book. This also applies to the online version of a research thesis.

You do not need permission if the image:

  • comes from a book or another article, and was created by the author of that book or article, provided you properly credit the creator.
  • is in the public domain (i.e. is no longer in copyright, usually because enough time has lapsed since its creation – this includes any photograph taken before 1955).
  • has a Creative Commons licence or some other licence (such as a statement that the image can be used for any non-commercial purpose). You must be careful to abide by the terms of the licence and make a note of the type of licence in the image caption. You might need to provide a link to the site that hosts the image. Remember that Creative Commons licences can sometimes forbid commercial use or the editing of an image.

If your image does not fall into one of the categories above, you are likely to need the creator or copyright owner’s permission to use it. Most images on the internet will require permission to use them in any online publication, even an academic one.

If the image is a photograph of an artwork, including an artwork on display in a gallery, you may need permission from the creator of the artwork – even if the photograph itself can be used under some licence, or is a photograph you took yourself. However, you do not need the artist’s permission if they have been deceased for more than 70 years, or if the artwork is a building or (in Australia) is a sculpture in a public place.

🩻 My image is in a work that is going to be published commercially

In this case you should always receive permission from the creator or copyright owner of any images used, or abide by the terms of any licence. Be aware that many licences prohibit commercial use.

🌠 My image will feature in a social media post

If you wish to post an image to your social media site, in most cases you will either need to ask permission from the creator or copyright owner of the image, or abide by any licensing conditions. An exception is when they have posted their image to their own social media site – you can post such images provided you properly credit them and provide a link to the original image.

6 frequently asked questions

Can I use (and edit) an image from someone else’s published research?

You can use the image, as long as the image was made by the author of the research. You can edit it as long as you note that you have done this, and do not fundamentally change the meaning or intent of the original (unless you are clearly satirising). Remember to credit the creator of the image.

How do I get permission?

Where an image is from a published work, you should contact the publisher. If it is on an internet site there should be a contact email address. Many image sites have an online form for asking permission to use their images. Occasionally you may be asked to pay a fee.

What if I can’t find the copyright holder?

You should document your efforts to locate the copyright holder – emails sent, searches performed. Approach the library for assistance. If a copyright holder really cannot be found after a diligent search, you should be able to use the material, with a note that you have been unable to locate them.

Do I need permission for images on Flickr or Wikimedia?

In many cases no, but you do need to check. Many images on Flickr or Wikimedia have a Creative Commons licence, but also have special licence terms, such as a requirement to provide a link to the creator’s website. You should be careful to abide by all licence conditions.

What about Google?

Images sourced from Google can come from many different places and often cannot be used without permission. You need to check carefully for any conditions and if there are none specified you should assume that you need to get permission. Google Images can be restricted to images with a Creative Common licence: once you’ve done your search, click on Tools, Usage Rights, then Creative Commons licences. When you do find an image you want to use, always check its licence, just in case there are some special extra conditions.

Where is a good place to look for images?

A good place to source Creative Commons or Public Domain images is the Openverse image search page.

  • Very informative post, Patrick! it demystified a few things for me. Thanks 🙂

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