This guide expands on Howard Colman Library’s basic Copyright Guide with information specific to students.

How does copyright affect me as a student?

You might not think that copyright affects you, but in fact every paper, art project, powerpoint, or podcast that you create is covered by copyright, and so are most of the websites and images that you find online, not to mention most of the books and articles that you’ll read in class. You might even want to use some of these copyrighted works in the papers or multimedia works you create in class, and if you plan to share what you create on the web, you should be especially careful.

Some examples of when you might want to reuse a copyrighted work:

  • Using a photograph that you found on the internet in a presentation.
  • Showing a clip from a movie as part of an in-class presentation
  • Quoting from a journal article for a blog post on a class website

Let’s take the first example: you want to find an image to use in a powerpoint presentation. Let’s say your presentation will also be posted to your class’s website, and you want to make sure that whatever you find won’t get you in trouble.

How do I find images that I can use in a presentation?

If you are unsure of their status, it’s best to start from the assumption that all images you find on the internet (or reprinted in books) are protected by copyright, even if there is no notice about copyright or information about the creator listed.

However, even when images are copyrighted, you may be covered by what’s called Fair Use. Fair Use is an exception to copyright law that allows people to reuse copyrighted works for certain purposes that don’t harm copyright holders or limit their ability to profit from their works. But determining whether a given use counts as fair can be difficult, so if you don’t want to worry about the intricacies of copyright law, the easiest way to find images to reuse in your presentations is to look for images with a Creative Commons license.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons licenses give creators a simple, easy way to allow other people to reuse their copyrighted works in specified ways.

The simplest license grants permission to anyone wanting to reuse the work, as long as they provide attribution. However, if you put a CC license on your work, you can also decide the following:

  1. Can someone reuse the work for commercial purposes, or are only non-commercial, non-profit uses allowed? (NonCommercial)
  2. Can someone alter the work (for example, by cropping, changing the coloration, or combining with another image) to create a derivative work, or does it have to stay as it is? (NoDerivs)
  3. Does whoever reuses your work have to include the same CC license that you chose? (ShareAlike)

How can I find Creative Commons images?

Luckily, there are lots of ways to search for images online that have Creative Commons licenses, or even for a particular kind of CC license. The easiest way to see where and how to search is to go to the Creative Commons search tool.

You can also use our guide to find images in the public domain or with licenses that permit reuse.

However, you can also look for advanced features in popular websites like Google Images, Flickr, YouTube, and Wikimedia that allow you to limit to results with Creative Commons licenses.

What if I don’t see a Creative Commons license? Can I still use it under Fair Use?

Fair Use is a powerful tool that allows you to reuse images or other works without seeking permission, and educational uses tend to receive the most consideration. However, just because you’re using something for a school project doesn’t necessarily mean that your use is considered fair.

There’s a lot that goes into determining this (courts use the “four factors” to determine this, and there are no hard rules that apply in all situations. (For more info, take a look at this Fair Use FAQ.) However, these questions get to the heart of determining what’s fair:

  1. Are you transforming the original work by using it for a different purpose? For example, do you include an image of a famous painting in order to analyze it? Are you using a still or short clip from a TV show in order to illustrate a point that you’re making? Or are you merely copying? The more transformative your use, the greater the likelihood that it will be considered fair use.
  2. Does your use compete with the original work? If someone could use your reproduction as a subsitute for purchasing the original work, or if your reuse impairs (even potentially) the market for the original work, it is unlikely to be considered fair use.
  3. Did you limit your use to only what was necessary for your purposes? The more of the original that you use, the higher the bar for fair use.

Want to be sure? Check out this Fair Use Checklist‌ from Cornell University.

What are some best practices that I can follow?

  1. Use only as much as you need. For example, short clips or excerpts are safer than using the entirety of a work.
  2. Limit access to who can view it. For example, it’s better to post something to a course page limited to your classmates rather than a class blog or personal website accessible to anyone.
  3. If possible, link to the resource (for instance, on the web, in a library database, etc.) instead of uploading your own copy.
  4. Although plagiarism is a separate issue from copyright, you can show that you are acting in “good faith” by providing citations of any copyrighted works that you use.
  5. Finally, if you’re still uncertain as to whether your use is fair, it’s safest to get permission when it is reasonably convenient to do so.