How to search for images – why copyright is important

Did you know that if you download and use an image from a Google search, you could be infringing copyright.  What does this mean?

It means that the original creator of the image has rights that protect their work against unlawful misuse.

How do you ensure that you comply with copyright law?

Compliance with copyright laws are important and if the law is not followed, it could put you in some trouble and potential legal action.  In order to help avoid this there are a number of great websites that cater for copyright free and attribution free content.  Before we list these, there are some important aspects and tips to cover as outlined below:

  • Use bona fide websites, where content has been made available as public domain by the copyright holder
  • Use Creative Commons to search for licensed content that can be used depending on the restrictions put in place by the copyright holder (the standard requirement for most licensed content is that the copyright holder must be attributed when their content is used for print or online)
  • Take your own pictures!  You will then own all the rights, but remember – if you upload your images online, be aware of your rights and consider whether you want to make your work available for others to use via something like Creative Commons.
  • Don’t just trust what a website claims to be copyright free, check the small print
  • If in doubt, it’s good practice to attribute the owner of the image
  • If you find an image that is under copyright, you could try to contact the rights holder and ask for their permission to use it.  If it’s used only for educational use, they may give you permission. Large companies may have their own copyright/permissions/rights department.

No photographyIf you want images that are copyright free and attribution free – you will need to use images that have been made available in the public domain or those where the copyright holder has waived their rights.  There are several websites that contain such images, take a look at the below list for some options.  Please note that it is always worth double checking the terms and conditions of use on any website you find on Google claiming to have such images and also to check any potential caveats in place for images.  For example, some images may be pulled into a search as copyright free and attribution free, but then in the small print have a message to the effect of ‘please check with the original copyright holder for any additional terms’.  A quick example is content from NASA.  On some websites this content comes up as completely free to use, but on closer inspection certain images on NASA may require attribution, although most should be free for educational use.

  1. – Great selection of copyright and attribution free images (licence information)
  2. – Good selection of images, updated regularly copyright and attribution free (Licence information)
  3. – Nice selection of images to choose from (Licence information)
  4. – Another site with copyright and attribution free images (Licence information)
  5. – Completely copyright and attribution free images (Licence information – triple check images just in case)

There are some other websites that offer slightly different options in terms of free graphics, clipart or background images.  Check out the below links for some further useful resources.

  1. – Great selection of free patterns, attribution and copyright free.
  2. – Good selection of completely free clipart (Licence information)

In addition, there are a number of very useful websites that have public domain images or work where the copyright has expired.

  1. – Completely free images taken from books where copyright has expired.
  2. – a Superb site containing collections of public works, with a very detailed licence information area and description of usage for each image or resource

The above selections are only a small number of websites offering a similar service.  The number one piece of advice when searching for images on any website, is to always check the terms and conditions of use before using them.  Never assume you can use images.

Google can be used to search for copyright free images, although caution should be applied in the same fashion as the above paragraph.

To search on Google, follow these steps:

  1. Go to
  2. Click on ‘images’ > Enter a search term – so an image you want to try and find
  3. Select the ‘Usage rights’ drop down list and select the one you need

Google search

The problem with the above search is that images on websites may well not have usage information, so you’ll still need to check their terms and conditions and if you still can’t find out whether the image can be used, it is recommended to contact the website to find out.  Or try using Google image reverse to find out who owns the content: (click on the camera icon and enter the URL of the image you are interested in)

Licensed images

One of the best places to find licensed images is through the Creative Commons website.  This website offers several search options for media and all content is licensed.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons enables copyright holders to change their copyright, thus enabling people to modify their work and reuse it.  It also means that if you create something, you can get your content licensed in the same way.  So it’s a more collaborative way of sharing your work and allowing people to use it without worry of infringement.  As long as you comply with the licence, you’ll be fine to use the material.  All licences under CC, apart from the public domain licence require attribution.

Check out this short video to find out more:

The golden rule to remember is that any media, whether it’s a video an image or writing, is most likely under copyright – always check before using anything online.

Further links

The Library essentials web page also contains useful information and links about copyright and a very useful FAQs section.

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Matt Ewens

eLearning Technologist at Plymouth Marjon University

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