This page provides a brief overview of issues relating to using images within your own scholarly work, including copyright, fair use, and the public domain. This page also links to resources where you can learn more about these issues, as well as resources where you can find images to use in your own work.

Copyright principles


The right to publish a copyrighted image is controlled by the copyright owner, so each copyrighted image that you use must have permission or fall within an exception, such as public domain, fair use, or open access. There are generally fees which come along with gaining permission to use a copyrighted image. These copyright permission fees are sometimes waived or reduced for scholarly publications; if not, however, they can be quite expensive as well as time-consuming to obtain. It is recommended that you begin the permissions process early to avoid any last-minute complications that may delay publication of your work. In addition to copyright permission, some museums and other providers of images charge a fee for the production or use of a digital image from their collections, even if the underlying work is in the public domain. Like permissions fees, use fees are sometimes waived or reduced for scholarly publications.

Keep in mind, the above recommendations refer to use of copyrighted images in a publication. You do not need to seek permission to use a copyrighted image for an assignment, as this generally falls under 'fair use'.

Fair use

According to the US Copyright Office: "Fair use is a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances."  Essentially, fair use is an exception to the requirement to ask permission to use a copyrighted work, and its application is treated on a case-by-case basis.

Learn more about fair use.

Public domain

The term 'public domain' refers to creative work which are not protected by intellectual property laws, i.e. copyright, trademarks, or patent laws. As intellectual property laws differ by country and jurisdiction, creative works including images can be in the public domain in one country, yet protected by copyright in another country. In the United States, if you can find a usable image in a book or journal article published before 1927, the image is in the public domain.

Importantly: works of the United States government are all in the public domain, regardless of year of publication.

You can find more information on what materials are in the public domain in the United States by consulting this chart.

General Image Resources

Wikimedia Commons has a large collection of images that are licensed using the Creative Commons licensing system. Restrictions, if any, are listed with the image. It is important to recognize that if you use Wikimedia, you are relying on copyright information provided by the person uploading the image. You should review the copyright information carefully to be sure it appears to be accurate.

Many of the licenses in Wikimedia permit noncommercial uses only. The definition of noncommercial for purposes of the CC BY-NC license is, “Non Commercial means not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.” Creative Commons provides some further guidance on how to interpret the NC license. 

Library of Congress - Prints and Photographs - This collection has over 1,200,000 digitized images from the Library's collections. Rights information is available for each image - look for the field marked "Rights Advisory." Many collections have no known restrictions on use. For further information about using the collection, read the Copyright and Other Restrictions That Apply to Publication/Distribution of Images. Information on restrictions on use by collection is also available.

New York Public Library - This collection contains more than 180,000 photographs, postcards, maps and other public-domain items from the library’s special collections in downloadable high-resolution files. High resolutions downloads are available with no permission required and no restrictions on use.

ARTstor is a digital library of nearly one million images in the areas of art, architecture, photography, the humanities, and social sciences with a set of tools to view, present, and manage images.

Citation: Using Images in Publications. Georgetown University Library.

Your own work

"If you have your own high resolution photograph, you may use it freely since you own the copyright in your photograph. If, however, your photograph is of a copyrighted work of art, permission of the artist will be required unless it is a fair use. Note that many museums do not allow photography of works in their collections, so obtaining your own image of a work of art may not be an option. While architectural works are subject to copyright protection, photographs of publicly viewable buildings may be used. 17 U.S.C. § 120(a)."

Citation: Using Images in Publications. Georgetown University Library.

Citing images

Each citation style has unique requirements for how to cite an image. Find more information on citation resources at NU.

Medical Images

Acknowledgements & additional information

The following guides were used to build this page, and additional information on the subject can be sought there.

Using Images in Publications. Georgetown University Library.

Copyright 101. Cornell University Libraries.