Copyright and images

Using images inevitably raises the question of copyright. As well as a legal responsibility, I think it’s fair to say academics are imbued with a professional responsibility, since using an image from the web is using someone else’s work and we are trained from the earliest stages of our careers to attribute the work of others to the source. In this sense, copyright isn’t at all alien; it’s a familiar process we engage with routinely in the form of referencing.

But despite that familiarity, it raises anxiety. In most of the places I presented, whether as an HE consultant or at an academic conference, people have rightly asked about image copyright because they’re concerned with the consequences of unintentional misuse in an increasingly policed and litigious environment.

Copyright 123RF

I’ll try to allay such anxieties here in two approaches: prevention and cure. I’ll start with prevention.

Copyright legislation is changing and will likely continue to change. Keeping abreast of all developments has become much more complex and the types of copyright have expanded considerably. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect every academic who considered using an image to be fully apprised of all this, but there is plenty we can do to maximize responsibility and minimize the likelihood of infringement. Probably the most inclusive method – by which I mean that it searches the greatest number of images from one search engine – is Google’s Advanced Image Search. There’s a screen grab below.


As well as allowing us to search by image type and size (I always go for 800 x 600 pixels because it’s the smallest size that will scale up to a large projector screen), we can filter for different types of copyright. Go to AIS, click on the bar the purple arrow is pointing at and make your choice. It isn’t perfect: Google has recognized that some people may upload images for which they do not possess copyright. But it is a good start and, used in conjunction with other methods, we can claim to have taken relevant measures to ensure we have followed the rules as much as conceivably possible.

Another site that allows us to control for copyright is Flickr’s Creative Commons. The Creative Commons search engine associated searches only with images uploaded by registered members who dictate the copyright license on their own images. Of course, some will upload the work of others to Flickr, just as happens with Google, but we can’t control that. I’ll be coming to ways of dealing with this later in this blog. These, then, are two sites that allow is to choose the kind of copyright license we are happy with. There are others, and I’ll go through some of them next.

My preferred source for free, copyright safe images is Pixabay, but there are many others. There’s a handy list here and I’ve listed more here. Many of them are designed to drive web traffic to paid sites but they still possess a wide range of high quality images. These normally have disclaimers: Pixabay, for example, says all its images are ‘released under Creative Commons CC0, which makes them safe to use without asking for permission or giving credit to the artist – even for commercial purposes’. We’d probably attribute them, though, because it’s in our professional nature. There’s also DeviantArt, a professional and amateur artists’ website with no copyright filter but with the option to request the right to use images directly form the artists themselves. The one below comes from the artist Christof Kiciak, who kindly agreed to me using his image of evolution for educational purposes. It’s a superb piece, capable of telling the story of sea-to-land evolution in one canvas, or slide.

Primordial evolution, by Christophe Kiciak, with permission of the artist

Many of the artists I’ve reached out to have kindly supported my pedagogic ventures, sometimes because it’s seen as a valid cause in itself, sometimes because it’s a free way for an artist to get their work ‘out there’, and sometimes for both.

The visual r/evolution is hard to escape.

Visual evolution. Copyright David Roberts 2016

Increasingly, so will its value for matching pedagogic delivery to learning capacity. Higher Education is becoming conscious of the viability of multimedia modalities – indeed, some areas have used images for decades, often without a clear justification for so doing. But now is the time of its intellectual rationalization in the shape of Multimedia Learning (MML) theory. MML explains why an image may be worth a thousand words, why they can organically produce active learning in large group settings, why and how images support dyslexic learners and how, in all this, we can increase engagement, student satisfaction and inclusivity. Schools are increasingly subsidizing the acquisition of royalty-free, copyright-safe images for the purposes of pedagogy from sites like 123RF, Shutterstock and others. Images from these sites can be used with attribution without fear of breach of copyright – if they’re being used for teaching rather than for commercial purposes. In short, payment permits pedagogic use. Details of subscription costs appear on the websites; the one my School funds annually costs around £500 a year. Student feedback, the development of empirical data on image effectiveness and NSS marks have all made the investment a worthwhile one, even before I reflect on how it’s changed how I feel about the way I teach. Choice of image source, then, is a key means of ensuring we do not fall foul accidentally of copyright issue.


But another one is much closer to home. We cite for a living; it’s part of our professional structure and identity as scholars whose job description revolves in part around ascertaining validity and veracity by ensuring source material is accessible to others.  If we are citing, there is no attempt to pass off the work of others as our own – no attempt to conceal, disguise or misrepresent. The process is tangibly honest, so even if we did accidentally pick up a copyright-protected image, citation will affirm intent. I’ll address this in a little more detail towards the end of this blog. For now, I’ll discuss how we can cite image sources.

I have yet seen no hard and fast rules that dictate exactly how we do this. I can think of 3 or 4 that range in ease, with the easiest probably being the pasting of the image’s URL into the notes view’ section of each PowerPoints slide. A second way is to allocate a final blank slide and paste the URLs there with a brief description of the image it relates to. A third is to paste a small font size version of the URL onto the image itself, preferably semi-opaque (text can be made partly see-through in PowerPoint with an easy slide tool). My own preferred way, based on the fact that I publish scholarly work that includes images by others is to do it like The Guardian does it: add a small icon of a camera and put the original URL into it, so when a mouse hovers over it the URL is visible and a click takes the viewer to the original page the image appears on. You can also embed the URL in the image, all in Word and PowerPoint. I used this method in the images in this blog.

There is also a cure. Supposing we did accidentally use an image we found using Google’s AIS engine and whose copyright provenance was misrepresented in the first instance by the uploader, and then someone came after us. The British Library has a policy we can invoke ourselves called a Notice and Take Down policy. This allows for a legitimate claim to result in the removal from their website of the offending material. It’s widely recognized that mistakes can be made, not least of all because provenance of billions of images, with many disseminated across multiple websites at different points in time. The Take Down practice demonstrates cooperation with legitimate challenges, rather than contest and legal confrontation. Given that an institution with the repute of the British Library uses this policy, I feel safe adopting it for my own purposes. But what also makes me feel that I won’t be harmed by accidentally using an image I shouldn’t is that I’m not using them commercially. Unless I take (photographically) or make (Photoshop) an image myself, I don’t them. As long as we are using them for teaching, there is no commercial gain and most copyright infringement challenges derive from someone selling someone else’s images. In conjunction with the voluntary Take Down policy, that makes me feel safe. And if you’re still doubtful about a particular image – don’t use it.

Thanks for reading; I hope this was of some reassurance. There’s also a really useful, thorough and comprehensive overview by Falmouth University here.


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