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Copyright: Digital Projects

Digital Project Copyright Help

To get help with copyright and digital projects, librarians can provide support for finding media that is either in the public domain or has a license applied to it that allows it to be reused. Librarians can provide classroom sessions on helping students locate media, as well as create research guides with best practices.

We highly recommend that if you are having your class work on a digital project as an assignment that you allow for time for a librarian to lead an instructional session that includes information about copyright and finding media that can be used in digital projects. These sessions can vary in length and complexity, depending on the needs of the class and time available. Self-directed modules can also be created that the students can complete outside of class.

Please understand that librarians are not lawyers and cannot provide legal advice regarding copyright, but instead are providing best practices and recommendations for how media can be used. Ultimately, it is at the discretion of students and faculty to determine if the use of material is infringing the rights of copyright holders, which may include contacting the original copyright holder to determine use.

For copyright help with digital projects, please email the following library groups:


Finding Media

How Does Copyright Affect Using Media in Digital Projects?

Copyright is a legal concept that protects the rights of authors/creators and their work from being used/copied without permission. It also protects the rights of those who want to use someone else’s work under the concept of Fair Use. In brief, you must have permission to use what belongs to someone else in certain circumstances, such as publishing.

Unlike using images in a paper that only a professor sees, when locating images for use in a digital project, you have to take into account that the general public will have access to the site. In order to respect copyright laws and the rights of creators, the general rule is that for any images published after 1925, you must get the copyright holder's permission. However, if the author has released their work under a license, such as a Creative Commons license, then there is more flexibility in using images for digital projects.

Always assume you need permission to use media you find on the Internet and work backwards from that assumption. You may find you only need to provide appropriate attribution back to the original creator. When in doubt, check with a librarian if you have questions about using media.

What About Fair Use?

While Fair Use covers the use of some copyrighted materials used in an educational setting, not every use of copyrighted materials in an educational environment is considered Fair Use. There are no set standards for how Fair Use is applied until an infringing use is taken to court. 

A good example is the use of a high-resolution image from another website on a student blog. If the student is using the image to provide critique or analysis of a scholarly issue, then it's more likely there is a Fair Use exception to copyright. However, if the image is used just for the purposes of decoration, then a Fair Use exception is far less likely.

What are Creative Commons Licenses?

Essentially, Creative Commons (CC) licenses are a way to license copyrighted works, meaning that the author is giving permission to use their work in certain ways. A CC licensed image still has copyright, but the  license communicates the appropriate terms of use so that you do not have to contact the copyright holder prior to use. There are CC licenses that put a work in the public domain, and some that say you just have to cite the author, and others that say you can remix and remake, as well as determine if you can make money off of their work. The most common CC license is CC-BY, meaning that if you use the material, you have to give credit to the original author. A full list of licenses is available on the Creative Commons website.

Search Engines for Creative Commons and Public Domain Materials

  • PhotoPin: A comprehensive search of Creative Commons licensed images. The site also has a built-in attribution creator for each image.
  • The Public Domain Review: Curated collections of images, books, audio and film, shining a light on curiosities and wonders from a wide range of online archives.
  • Creative Commons Search: This is a good place to start looking for images. There are two checkboxes at the top, for the purposes of this project, you can uncheck use for commercial purposes. If you are not planning on editing an image, you can also uncheck modify, adapt, or build upon. Enter your search terms in the box, and click on the service you want to search (Flickr, Google Images, etc.).
  • Google Image Search: When searching, click Tools, then click Usage Rights, then check Labeled for Reuse (this will likely produce the most results). Be aware that just because an image shows up as Labeled for Reuse doesn't necessarily mean that the image has been appropriately licensed in such a way. Google is using the metadata for the image that it has available to it, and if someone assigned it a license inappropriately, then it may be infringing on someone's rights inadvertently. searching Google for licensed images
  • Flickr: After searching for images, click where it says Any License and change to All Creative Commons. You can also change to No Copyright Restrictions but that may result in fewer usable images. The Flickr Commons page also aggregates reusable content.
  • Getty Open Content: Getty makes some of their images freely available as open content.
  • United States Goverment Images: Generally, images created by the United States government are in the public domain, meaning they can be reused with no restrictions.
  • Wikimedia Commons: After searching for an image, click on Multimedia to only show image files. This one can be a bit confusing.
  • YouTube: After searching, click on Filters, then click on Creative Commons.
  • Calisphere: Calisphere is a gateway to digital collections from California's great libraries, archives, and museums.
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art - Digital Collections: Enjoy more than 406,000 hi-res images of public-domain works from the collection that can be downloaded, shared, and remixed without restriction.
  • Freer Sackler (Smithsonian)The Freer Sackler focuses on collecting Asian art. Their collection is available digitally. We can use the images for our non-commercial use, with appropriate credit.
  • New York Public Library - Digital CollectionsNYPL has digitized nearly 1 million items from their collection and made them available to download.
  • Cleveland Museum of Art: The Cleveland Museum of Art has thousands of images that are either available in the Public Domain or have a Creative Commons license. You can see what licenses are available for an object after clicking on it.
    Download and share options


Attribution for Media

Attribution vs. Citation

While attribution and citation are often used interchangeably, they have subtle differences. Attribution is usually more focused on giving credit to the source of images, texts, ideas, etc., while citation is more focused on helping scholars trace back ideas through their development in various scholarly and primary resources. There is no single way to provide attribution, while citations are usually very regimented, with specific requirements and structure, depending on what citation style you are using. Both are acknowledging that someone else contributed content that you are using in your material.

How Do I Give Attribution for Media?

There are best practices for giving attribution. This is different than citing a source in a bibliography or works cited page. There is no correct way to attribute, but there are better ways than others. Ideally, in a digital project, if you are using media you found online, your attribution should include:

  • The title of the media
  • The name of the author
  • The link to the original media
  • Any license information (such as Creative Commons, Public Domain, etc.)

The idea is to give as much information as possible so someone else can find the media in its original online location.

Attribution Example for an Image Found Online

Ellora Caves (INDIA) by William Muzi is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So what is going on in the above image and attribution? The first link is a link to the Flickr page where I found the image. The second link is a link to the author's Flickr page (you can find these by clicking on the author's name, then copying the link). The last link is a link to the CC license, which in Flickr you can find by clicking on the link that usually says Some rights reserved

This is just an example from Flickr, other sites may be similar. As with many things on the Internet, not every author uses a proper name, so if they use a screenname or something that is obviously fake, still use that, since it is how they asked to be credited.

Wikimedia Commons makes attributing images easy.

  1. From the File page in Wikimedia Commons, click on Use this File on the Web
  2. In the pop-up window that appears, check the HTML box next to the Attribution field
  3. Copy everything in the Attribution box and paste it in the appropriate location


The final credit for this photo would look like: By Kushal Kafle (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Attribution for Images that You Have Taken Yourself

Images that you have taken yourself and uploaded directly to a project can be handled as easily as:

Photo by Abraham Lincoln (Own work)

If you put the image on Flickr or another online repository, or added a Creative Commons license, you can treat it like any other image. Adding a title to the image may help identify it.

For Faculty: Evaluating Media in Digital Projects

Add Attribution to Rubrics

When evaluating digital projects, providing proper attribution for media should be part of any rubric. Students must be able to provide a proper credit which provides the title, author, and source of the original media, just as if they were creating a citation in a paper for sources they use. Ideally, attributions for media should be included as close to the media itself as possible. If this isn't possible, a list of media sources will suffice if it is clear in the list to which reference each attribution is pointing to.

Failure to properly provide attribution for an image should have a significant consequence on the final grade. Ideally, an opportunity to revise the digital project should be included in the rubric to allow students the chance to fix any issues with the project. However, if improper attribution is not remediated, then the media should be removed from the project.

Use the Honor Code and Pledge

Since digital projects are often classroom assignments just as traditional written assignments are, students should be expected to adhere to the Honor Code, and ideally, include the Pledge on a portion of the project, either within the structure of the digital project itself, or a written portion of the project assignment they turn in separately.

Require Attribution for Media in the Public Domain

Even though public domain images do not legally require attribution, students should still include attribution when they are used in order to be ethical users of information.

Citing Sources for Written Portions of Digital Projects

While media should require attribution, citation is still vital for written scholarly materials in a digital project. Since websites do not generally work well with footnotes and traditionally formatted bibliographies, students should be encouraged to provide citations for any written materials as inline citations, with a location somewhere within the digital project itself dedicated to sources (such as at the end of the project, or on individual webpages).

For Faculty: Example Attribution Exercise

Attribution Creation

Create attributions for the following images. Remember to include, as relevant, the title of the image, the author, the source, and any applicable licenses.

  • Example 1:
  • Example 2:
  • Example 3:

Find a Public Domain or Licensed Image

Locate an image that you can use in your digital project that is either in the public domain or has a license attached to it that allows it to be used (such as Creative Commons). Include the link to the image, as well as the steps you took to find it. You can write out the steps, or use screenshots or screen recording software to document the process.