Selecting Images that Comply with Copyright Laws – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
Best Practices, Tips, and Tricks

Selecting Images that Comply with Copyright Laws

Have you ever been building a course in Canvas or adding something to your personal website, realized you needed an image, and used an online search to find one? Did you then wonder if that image was copyrighted, but were unsure how to tell? If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then this post is for you!

The vast majority of the images we find with a simple online search are copyrighted, which means it’s illegal to use them without written permission from the creator. If you use such images without permission, you can receive a cease and desist letter or, worst-case scenario, the university could get sued. Throughout my years of studying and working in the field of online education, I’ve heard the assumption that as long as the images are used for educational purposes, it’s complying with the laws. Unfortunately, this is not what copyright laws state and even in the field of education, we need to be careful about the images we choose to use. Next, I’ll give you a few tips and tricks about where to find images that are legal to use and how to tell if you need to provide attribution.

My favorite image databases are Pixabay and Unsplash. All images on these websites are free, non-copyrighted, and non-attribution, meaning you don’t need to cite your source. You can simply find an image, download it, and use it however you want. Couldn’t be easier!

However, the downside to Pixabay and Unsplash is that they are relatively limited databases and don’t have anywhere near the same number of images to choose from as Google or another large search engine. So if you can’t find an image you like on these two sites, you’ll likely find more options using a Creative Commons search. After clicking on the previous link, uncheck the box for “use for commercial purposes” (since that doesn’t apply to educational institutions), type in your search terms, and click on the “Google Images” box. Any image you find on the search results page is copyright-cleared, although it best practice to follow the link to be sure, and the image will likely require attribution. But be careful, any “related images” Google suggests may not be copyright-cleared, and even those that are will still likely require attribution.

Providing image attribution is similar to citing a source in a research paper; it is a way to communicate to readers the origin of the artifact. What’s more, there is specific information that must be included when providing attribution, the same way that there is for APA or MLA citations. The required information includes (1) the title of the work, (2) the author’s name, (3) a link to the source, and (4) a link to the license. As an example, I used Creative Commons (linked above) to search for images of kittens and I found the following gem:

Three gray kittens with black stripes laying on a blue blanket






Here’s how I would properly provide attribution for this image: “kittens” by Mathias Erhart is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can see, the title of the work (“kittens”) is also a link to the webpage where I found the image, which takes care of criteria for both (1) and (3) above. (Quick tip- you can create a hyperlink using CMD+K on a Mac or CTRL+K on a PC.) I also included the author’s name, taking care of requirement (2). You may notice that I made the author’s name into a link to their profile. This is optional, but it’s a nice way to encourage readers to check out more of the author’s work. Finally, I found the type of license and the link on the image’s source webpage by clicking on “Some rights reserved” under the right side of the image, which satisfies requirement (4). Depending on the website where you find your image, you may have to hunt a little harder for this information, the same way that you might have to do for some sources cited in a research paper. Just remember, all four criteria must be included in order to comply with the attribution requirements of copyright laws.

And one final bonus… here are some other databases you might choose to use:

Most, if not all, of the images found in these databases will require attribution. You will need to check each individual image to make sure.

And there you have it! Now you know how to find images that are legal to use in addition to knowing when and how to provide attribution. If you have any questions about this process, feel free to let us know.

This post was written by Karin Brown, an Instructional Designer for the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. To learn more about this topic, please visit our website at or email us at

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1 Comment

  • Reply Ann Zawistoski February 14, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    These are great, thank you Karin!

    Another place for some images is US government agencies. Most materials created by government agencies are not under copyright and are available for use for non-commercial and educational purposes.

    My favorite is the NASA images site:
    The CDC has a lot of great Public Health related image collections:

    Some government websites do have and use images that are under copyright, so as mentioned in your post, it’s always best to double check, and to provide attribution.

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