Thing 05: Working With Images – Understanding Copyright and Licensing

Many of you will be relying on images to illustrate and enhance your research, but knowing how to find and responsibly use images can be tricky. In this post, Julie Cohen, Ruth McConchie, and Wil Villareal demystify the process.  

Getting started

Using images in your research can be a great way to add meaning to your text. However, not all images can be reproduced in the same way. To understand how to work with images, we need to know the basics of copyright. 

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of intellectual property. It attempts to balance the creator’s ability to control and generate an income from their work with the greater community’s need to use that work for socially beneficial purposes. It is important that we respect the rights of copyright owners and take the appropriate steps to prevent copyright infringement. 

Copyright doesn’t protect ideas and information – only how they are expressed in material form. Your ideas are protected by copyright once you write them down as part of your essay or thesis, record them as a sound or video, when you take a photograph, or compose a piece of music.   

As copyright owner, you have exclusive rights to:  

  • Reproduce your work, e.g. by photocopying, recording, and scanning.  
  • Publish or make the work publicly available, in print or electronic format.  
  • Communicate your workmake it available online, or email it to someone.  
  • Adapt your work, such as translating the work or rearranging a musical composition. 

If anyone else wants to do any of these things, they will generally need your permission. Conversely, if you would like to do any of these things to someone else’s work, you will likely need their permission. 

Copyright generally lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years – but it does vary for different types of works. Check the Copyright Office website for more information. 

That Thing you do: integration into practice

Now that we understand the basic principles of copyright, let’s have a look at where to find images that you can use in your work.  

1. Create it yourself

As copyright owner, you can decide how you share any work you create yourselfHowever, if a friend takes a photo of your workyou should get written permission from your friend to use that photo. Relationships change over time, so making sure you have written permission is important. 

2. Use a public domain image

When a work is in the public domain, it means the copyright has expired or the creator has dedicated it to the public domain. Websites like PixabayPexels and Unsplash offer free searchable public domain images. You can also use images uploaded to Wikimedia, and public domain images you find using a filtered Google Image search. You do need to exercise caution when using public domain images, as photographers can take photos of other people’s work without permission.  

3. Use a licensed image  

Creative Commons is a global not-for-profit initiative which provides free licences for creators to allow legal sharing and remixing of their material. You can source images from stock websites such as Shutterstock or Getty Images. You will need to pay a fee to use the images, but this may be a good source depending on your budget and the type of image you need. 

However, because people share other people’s work without asking permission from the copyright owner, some Creative Commonslicensed works may not be legitimately licensedThere are guides available on the Copyright Office website on searching for Creative Commons images. 

You can also attach a Creative Commons licence to your image to allow sharing and remixing by others. For more info, see the Creative Commons website. 

Open Content A Practical Guide to Using Creative Commons Licences web-29
Design: Markus Büsges, leomaria designbüro, Germany / CC BY-SA

4. Exemption under Fair Dealing  

You can use a work under a Fair Dealing exemption which – under certain circumstances – allows the limited use of copyright material without requiring permission from the copyright owner. To rely on these provisions, the use must be genuine and not merely illustrative. So, if, for example, you are relying on the fair dealing provision for criticism and review of an image, you must be making a genuine judgement of the material or of its underlying ideas.   

5. Seeking permission

You can also seek permission from the copyright owner. Keep a written record of the permission and all communication. In the written permission, you should ensure there are full details of the proposed use and any future uses. Remember, you may not be successful in obtaining permission, so always have an alternative on hand. More information on seeking permissions is available here.  


Other considerations around images:

  • Image attribution. An essential part of giving credit where it is due. This also means you can avoid being accused of plagiarism and allows others to trace your sources.  
  • Image citations. If you are citing images in written form you should do so in the format appropriate to the citation style you are using.  
  • Using images in presentations oonline. When including images in a public presentation, consider if you are sharing a copyright compliant image. Attribute these sources consistently with at least the title, date, author, licence, and web address where appropriateWhen sharing images online you should also go through a similar processbut also provide contextual links to the original online source where appropriate. 
  • Images of people. Do you need consent? Are there any privacy issues? Talk to your Research Office for advice and assistance. 
  • Moral rights. All creators retain the right to be acknowledged as the author of the work, even if they no longer own the copyright. Creators also retain the right to take action if their work is falsely attributed, or if their work is treated in a prejudicial or derogatory manner. 

 Learn more 

About the authors

Julie Cohen works as a Liaison Librarian within the Fine Arts and Music Team supporting researchers and students in the Creative Arts. She has degrees in Music and Arts and is a practicing musician with a background in Performing Arts.  

Ruth McConchie is a Liaison Librarian (Learning and Teaching) in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music at the University of Melbourne. Ruth is also a practicing artist and completed a Master of Arts (by Research) in practice-led Visual Art in 2014. 

Wil Villareal is a Liaison Librarian in the Health & Life Sciences team where he delivers learning, teaching and research programs. Wil also routinely field queries about copyright, publishing and intellectual property on behalf of the University Copyright Office. 


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Image credit: Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

One Response to “Thing 05: Working With Images – Understanding Copyright and Licensing”

  1. […] Cohen. J., McConchie. R., Villareal. W. (2020, July 1). Thing 05: Working With Images – Understanding Copyright and Licensing. 23 Research Things, University of Melbourne Library.… […]

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