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.


Costs and benefits

In most respects, this project of developing MML shouldn’t cost individual academics anything. This site is funded by Loughborough university, for example. Time I personally spend with this CoP is covered by a variety of initiatives I have connected to. Perhaps most importantly, my School is right behind this venture. It’s an Impact Case Study for the REF as well as evidence of professional development and esteem etc. It is acknowledged, respected and valued.

Not all Schools will be like this, yet. And although I am wary of making predictions, especially any based on academic theories, I believe all universities will have to at least not show resistance to visual pedagogies to support textual learning and teaching. Logocentric university teaching is framed and contradicted by UK public policy in schools by the Department for Education that insists on elevating visuality to support inclusive learning, and by the real world that is moving past textual hegemony into an era characterized by the potential for dual learning to match dual processing. This isn’t going to go away, and institutions not engaging and seen to be engaging with this conversation will experience intellectual and social opprobrium. Universities will ignore this digital visual wave in Canute-like fashion at their peril.

There will be more, not less, people taking images as cameras on phones improve and spread globally. There will be more, not less, images being uploaded online. There will be more, not less, image data banks. There will be more, not less, commercial imagery. There will be more, not less, normalization of imagery for communication. The only way I can see a reversal of these digital trends is the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse.

Zombie Apocalypse. Copyright AMC The Walking Dead.

For now, there will be little formal institutional attention to imagery, which implies perhaps a cash vacuum. But it is unquestionable that the idea of MML in HE is novel, innovative and ticks important boxes. I’m thinking about the need to demonstrate innovation and excellence and connect teaching to scholarship on teaching, elements of which appear to underpin the TEF. I also see our inquiry into this method as sustaining Continuous Professional Development. Even limited but rigorous research by us on our own student cohort into the methods we develop will demonstrate innovation and pedagogic investigation for promotion purposes. More substantially in some ways, my own appointment to a Senior Fellowship of the HEA was effected by the research appearing on these pages, so ‘higher’ climbing can be facilitated this way. It’s going to involve some hard work so there should, I believe, be a tangible reward for our endeavors. And in five years time, we may be the ‘tip of the spear’ as visual evolution and pedagogy is increasingly acknowledged and centralized.

Leading the field. Copyright

Schools will to varying degrees be tipped as momentum gathers. This means we will likely be better able to argue for subscriptions to commercial image banks like 123RF, Shutterstock and Depositphotos, to name just a few. These average around 300-400 USD a year for around 40 images a month. It isn’t much even for a cash-strapped Department. It may be the case that you can ask your Centralized Academic Offices for help, and it may be possible, if applying for pedagogic research funding, to include in your bids, access to various subscriptions. In fact, I wish I had thought of that earlier. The trend is towards imagery, not away from it. Other than this, access to images is largely free. Acknowledgement costs nothing and it’s what we do, as scholars.


The benefits, on the other hand, can be quite far-reaching. The evidence so far shows increases in the range of 40-60% for student engagement in large group lectures, not to mention increases in the presence of active learning characteristics of 60-80%. This is the evidence from formal longitudinal testing. Informal and anecdotal evidence indicates 30 percent increases in the number of students getting externally-validated ‘firsts’ in various modules where visual teaching and learning have been deployed.

We will also benefit in terms of taking this data and evolving it further, developing other approaches and areas of investigation and generally contributing to – maybe even owning to some extent – this almost untouched – and yet universally-applicable – research domain. Aside from Richard Mayer’s CUP tome, research has been sporadic to-date, with relatively few academics engaged in something that reaches all disciplines in all Schools in all universities in every country in the world. The potential for publishing is great, and this brings me to another area of benefits, in terms of CPD. The more we are able to research, consider and publish, the better our profiles, the more evidence we accrue for applications for pay rises and promotion, the higher our salaries and the better (hopefully) our pensions are. I call this the 3P’s: pay, promotion, pension. There are multiple strategic dimensions to the way I see this area of investigation and pedagogy evolving. Supporting colleagues’ CPD ambitions is one of a number.

Leg up. Copyright

So, yes, there will be a demand on our time as you engage here, but the amount of time is of our choosing, and has clear benefits to our students, for whom we work. But that’s just one side of it. IMHO, the potential benefits, to us and our students, is worth an initial surge in workload. It’s entirely up to us how we develop and exploit this opportunity.



Time investment

In another post, I alluded to the notion that teaching with images was for some comparable to an act of heresy, because privileging, or even moderately introducing a few images here and there, challenges millennia of logocentric orthodoxy. It is probably over-dramatizing the issue to suggest that we are involved in an act of pedagogic heresy; but the scale of the challenge facing us is every bit as epic as such a heretic position would imply. Kings and governments have crumbled over less. It’s the size and scope of the exercise in which we are involved that I want to draw attention to here, because there’s the matter of the amount of time we can choose to allocate to this venture.

There are dozens of competing pressures on academics’ time. There are many reasons for the changes in workloads that have evolved since what look now like halcyon days when I was a (mature) student taking my first degree. In the late 80s, as Western politics, economy and society were being transformed under Reagan and Thatcher, the academics that taught me were just starting to feel the bite. As effective challenges from opposition fell away, a variety of processes and fads brought the academy to heel, in line with the larger picture and forces that were transforming our professional existences and our students’ experiences. Thatcherism, managerialism, privatization and deregulation paved the way for the existing neoliberal order that privileges competition unleashed by metrication and the commodification of education.

Tornado. Copyright

Where once there was time for leisurely reflection on teaching – compromised by a lack of direction and urge among many scholars to do just that – now there is barely time to arrange a meeting with more than two academics in one place on the same date – if there’s a room available. Our job descriptions have broadened and tightened to the point that the profession I once knew has all but disappeared. In some respects that’s good. But it leaves us in the peculiar situation where most universities get much of their cash from block teaching grants, whilst most colleagues seek reward mainly for their research in areas other than pedagogy, and our diaries reflect this. So time is not on our side – not where innovative, original research into how to match pedagogy to physiology is concerned, which is the basis of this MML CoP. Getting more than 5 members of this CoP to one place on the same date, for example, proved impossible. What I’m saying, in a roundabout, but nonetheless important (I think) way, is that we’ve boldly chosen to rethink the very fundamentals of how we teach, with almost no time available to take on this mammoth task. Fortunately, one of the great virtues of a CoP is the division of labour and the range of personal aspirations to be found across that divide, meaning there is a pedagogic arsenal coming online. As Ellie’s Dad counsels his young daughter in the movie ‘Contact’, it’s ‘small steps’ that will take us forward. And that applies to anyone who wants to progress their engagement with visual learning. Because, when confronted with the idea of a visual presentation with limited text using apposite images, the task looks giant. But like most tasks, it’s much easier when you break it down. This blog post is about breaking it down.

Car broken down into its component parts. Copyright.

My own experiences with using images to teach began with using one unmodified image I came across accidentally that seemed to connect with what I was teaching (below). It’s s subtle horror show of an image, revealing only a smear of blood at an airport but telling a story of globalization, animal rights, corruption, neoliberal consumption, markets, the commodification of life, biopolitics and so much more. I felt at the  time like I had fallen upon the Mother lode.  I worked out how to insert the image but it bounced around when I tried to add text to it and it was blurred. I found a better version of it and asked someone how to keep an image still in PPT and they said ’embed it’, and Google did the rest. I used just the one image and that was it. But it was commented on and someone said I should use more. I looked around for examples and found few at the time but everywhere I turned there were amazing adverts telling huge and complex stories to regular folk.

WWF advert on endangered species trafficking, adjusted in Photoshop

This process coincided with changes in my life that allowed me more time to ‘mess around’ with this idea. But not everyone will have that opportunity. People have lives, and children, and parties, and conferences, and Open Days and school visits and weddings and all the rest. Oh, and academic careers. So what I would say to someone trying to juggle an already-overloaded diary is, you don’t need a lot of time to find just one image, to start the ball rolling. And if you’re inclined, which I suspect is likely given your interest in this CoP, you may decide to consider research into pedagogy if you haven’t already, and you will be in possession of unique primary data as you evolve your method in your own direction. Pedagogic journals are included in most REF submissions and this is still a niche market, if you like. Combining a shift in your teaching with efficiency in research time and output helped me reshape my research agenda (my career area has been peacebuilding in postconflict spaces but that was halted by university policy that was concerned with reputational harm to its name if I was injured in the field). Pedagogic research was a gift from heaven for me; our niche area may help us find more outlets for our interests and enable us to combine teaching and research/REF in one. There will likely be a blog series about research, as well. So, small steps, a few images here and there, building up and then research on that process and its impact on student cohorts. I’d be especially keen to see how this method might support non/partial-sighted students myself so if anyone works with non-sighted students, let me know and we might be able to collaborate. I’d be interested in working with anyone to extend our examination of MML theory and methods.

Small steps. Copyright

To close, there’s another way we can quickly and easily improve our students’ learning experience that doesn’t involve images but does involve Cognitive Load Theory and MML. It seems that splitting up text-loaded slides into multiple slides with, perhaps, just one point or one line on each, reduces the harm caused by overload. It’s quick and easy to do, adds more slides but not more content and divides up content to be absorbed. It isn’t images but it is cognizant of MML theory and it may be a good starting place for some, I imagine.