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Art Research and Finding Images: Copyright

This guide provides students with recommended resources for art research and finding images.

Guidelines for Using Images

  • Remember to always cite images, both in the text with a caption, and in the bibliography or references.
  • Do not use more than five images by any one artist or photographer, and not more than 10% or 15 images from any one published collective work.
  • SBCC's Copyright page has more information about related topics.


The United States Copyright Office defines copyright as "a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U.S. Code) to the authors of 'original works of authorship,' including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works." Images on the internet are protected by copyright, even when this is not stated by the owner of the image (a copyright symbol may not be present). Remember, if you are not the creator, you need permission. Some exceptions exist, such as Fair Use and Public Domain, that allow you to appropriately use works as a creator of new materials.

Fair Use

Section 107 of copyright law outlines exceptions as Fair Use to be: "various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research." At the same time, use of images should not be for commercial purposes. It may be difficult to tell if using a copyrighted image qualifies under the Fair Use policy. When in doubt, the best possible method is to seek permission from the owner of the image before using it, explaining your purposes and reasons for using their work. Obviously, seeking out a creator is not the most timely and easy solution. You may not need to under Fair Use. If you still are unsure ask your instructor or a librarian for help. Online tools such as this Fair Use guide exist to help you think thoughtfully about your options.

Creative Commons

Because copyright implies the highest level of restriction, creators who want more flexibility placed on works elect to use another type of licence. Some creators choose to make their images and other works available under a Creative Commons License for public use under certain conditions, such as stipulating that you must credit them (through citation or attribution) as the source of that image and not use the image for your own profit-seeking purposes. Learn more about the difference between citation and attribution.

Public Domain

Public Domain, according to the United States Copyright Office, refers to "a work of authorship... [that] is no longer under copyright protection or it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner." This means you do not have to ask permission when a work falls into the category of the Public Domain, but it is always good practice to give credit.

Copyright Video

The following tutorial provides an overview of copyright, including the types of information that are and are not covered by copyright law, fair use exceptions to copyright restrictions, Creative Commons copyright licenses, and how to use sources responsibly (from off campus you will need to log in using your Pipeline username and password):