Maybe We Can: Image Copyright and You

With major revelations in the Shepard Fairey copyright case hitting the news, image citation and copyright has been on my mind lately.’  Maybe I’m a little over-sensitive because I hold a degree in art history, but failure to properly cite images has always been a pet peeve of mine. I cringe when I see students pulling photos and diagrams straight from a Google image search without bothering to find out the source of the image or credit its creator in any way.

But here’s my sad little secret: half the time I’m just as confused as my students when it comes to properly citing.

At a recent conference I was excited about a session on copyright for school librarians, but what looked like a solid overview was quickly derailed by very specific audience questions, so we never even got to the slide on images.’  What’s a well-meaning librarian to do?

There’s Creative Commons, of course, which I think offers very clear explanations of copyright and terms of use–and is a great place to send teens when they want to find images. If you want cover images for your library blog (and who doesn’t?) you can easily obtain a developer key from LibraryThing and pretty much use CoverThing to your heart’s content.

But what about when you’ve found the absolutely perfect image online, and you’re not sure if you can use it?

This morning I’ve been hunting for propaganda images for a US History class coming into the library this week, and I came across a fantastic slide show from Life Magazine.’  I immediately tried to track down citation information–I think it’s irresponsible to point my students to resources without knowing if or how they can be cited–but what I found was a pretty dense terms of use page geared toward commercial reproduction.

Luckily for me, Getty Images offers free online chat with their licensing experts. (Hi, Brad!) I quickly learned that images can be cited by photographer/artist and Getty Images, and that printing costs money–unless you print just the preview image with a Getty watermark, which is free.

Success! I found a great resource for my students, I got over my fear of feeling dumb and asked someone for help, and now I have very clear image use and citation guidelines for Getty Images–not to mention a very positive customer service experience online.

What’s your favorite story about copyright or a resource you love for images online?

About mk Eagle

I'm the librarian at Holliston High School, a bit west of Boston. In my spare time I advise my school's yearbook and Gay Straight Alliance, write about food, and root for the Red Sox.
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12 Comments

  1. My favorite? The number of those who should know better who believe that if it’s on found via Google Image, there are no copyright issues or restrictions to using the image.

  2. I think this an attitude that goes far beyond Google, unfortunately. And for teens and adults alike! A colleague summarized how tough it is to make arguments to kids about file sharing: “But… Limewire exists! It must be legal!”

    In general, I think images really get short shrift when it comes to copyright conversations. There’s this “Oh, it’s just a picture” sentiment, or a belief that somehow images are in the public domain (no, seriously, logos are protected content!) that all too rarely gets corrected.

  3. It also adds back to something I’m constantly disappointed in from those who should know better (teachers, educators, librarians). Basically, when its what they want to do, they just do it! How can you teach students the right way, in terms of copyright, giving credit, etc., when those who should know better ignore the right way themselves?

  4. Well, I can certainly relate to that frustration–but I think it’s also important to remember that we’re all human, and to fess up when we slip up. I often begin research lessons by telling students that sometimes the first place I look is Google or Wikipedia, even though I know there are better sources out there. And I’ll admit that despite having a developer key from LibraryThing, I keep forgetting I have one and linking images from them without the API.

  5. I have also been encountering a general lack of information regarding image usage and copyright restrictions. I understand how to properly cite articles/books/text since most of the time it would fall under Fair Use or Fair Dealing. But how does that work for images? Is a citation sufficient? Do images fall under Fair Dealing or Fair Use. I find the legislation on this to be quite murky. And yes, I realize there are numerous places to get copyright free images, but what do you do if that is not sufficient for your needs?

  6. Annie, I’ve been searching and searching, but alas, I too am finding the legislation murky and the guidelines less than helpful–“get permission from the copyright owner if necessary” doesn’t tell you how to decide if it’s necessary!

    What is clear: any time a student references an image for a paper or project, they should cite that image according to your preferred writing style’s guidelines; MLA 2009 is pretty clear on images and images accessed online.

    What’s less clear: if and how you (and students) can use images with proper attribution. My advice? Stick with images from sources where terms of use are abundantly clear (like Creative Commons and Getty).

    And always encourage students (and each other!) to contact copyright holders directly to find out if they can reproduce an image if those terms Aren’t clear–most sites have some way to contact authors and artists. In a lot of cases, I’d bet creators would be pleased to know their (properly attributed work) is getting out there and being helpful to scholars of all ages.

    It’s also a great lesson if the answer turns out to be no, too! Start a conversation about ownership and art. Ask your students to step into the shoes of an AP photographer, or a painter, or a journalist. Why might someone want other people to use their work, and why might someone want to control who gets to use it?

  7. Hi – I’m a librarian with a law degree, and I specialize in copyright in my daily work. Just saw this in AL Direct, and was excited to read your post. Just want to respond, because you seem to be conflating two very different things – _citation_ and _copyright_ are separate issues.

    Copyright law doesn’t specifically speak to citation or attribution – of course it looks bad (and is rude, and may violate standards of academic integrity) to use an image without citing the source, but if your use of the image was legitimate (i.e., it’s public domain, or you’re making a fair use) there is _no legal requirement to cite_. As mk Eagle points out above, the rules about citations for images – whether just making reference to one, or including a partial or full copy – come from the appropriate style guides.

    I totally understand your frustration at incomplete and inconsistent image use guidelines out there, but I would be very wary of relying on “licensing experts” at commercial image services for guidance on what your patrons can do with images. The guidance the movie and music industries put out on use of their content, and the guidance the publishing industry puts out on use of books, are often far more conservative than what the law actually allows. Frequently, their information downplays or ignores the vital creative “safety valve” of fair use. While your contact above seems to have suggested that any and all printing of a Getty image must be paid for, that is not true – fair uses do not need permission or payment. Unfortunately, what constitutes fair use in an individual case can be very confusing and sticky – but most black-and-white, hard and fast sets of rules ignore the subtleties that protect free expression and cultural participation.

    Tim Wu just put out a great, accessible discussion of what fair use is really about on a practical level. http://www.slate.com/id/2233152/

    ALA’s OITP also has a helpful tool for assessing whether any given use is fair. http://librarycopyright.net/fairuse/

    Hope you may find these useful.

  8. Hi Nancy- Thanks so much for your input!

    Indeed, citation and copyright are separate issues–but certainly related, which is why I think it’s important to discuss them together. Part of the reason we teach students to cite properly, after all, is to help them understand the concept of intellectual property, which copyright was designed to protect.

    Your point about relying on advice from folks with a commercial interest in their work is well-taken (and it’s possible that “Brad” was working off a script and ignored the part where I explained that I was a high school librarian specifically asking about academic use).

    That said, I’d personally rather a student err on the side of interpreting copyright conservatively (and start a discussion about why some industries might try to put out more conservative guidelines) than go in the other extreme and figure they can use anything they find online.

  9. I worry about conflating citation and copyright – the former is a system of social rules, the latter is a legal issue. (Granted, the law is just a system of social rules, too, but it has monetary damages, injunctions, and even jail time to back it up.) I’ve always thought that the reason we teach people to cite properly is to help them track the progress of ideas and intellectual conversations – and ideas cannot be owned under US copyright law. Citation is important whether you’re critiquing the prior work or lauding it, but in neither case do you need the author’s permission to comment on their work. And you only need their permission to quote it if your use falls outside of fair use.

    I’m not sure copyright was “designed” for anything, or it would be a lot more comprehensible and systematic than the legal patchwork we deal with today. It’s purpose, however, is to protect the public interest in the proliferation of content, and in eventual access to it (although increasing term lengths challenge this aspect of the public interest.) I think the dichotomy you present, between erring on the side of extreme caution and people using anything they find online, is a false one. I do volunteer work with teenagers. They can deal with complex concepts. I’d love to see people teaching students to take their best stab at a fair use analysis when using someone else’s works, rather than encouraging an “always ask permission” culture.

  10. As someone who works with teens, I hope I didn’t come across as sounding like I don’t think they can deal with complex concepts–but it’s clear that in some settings they aren’t. And as educators we’re often at fault for creating those environments–for passing along rules with no more explanation than “because I said so,” for letting time pressures get to us in not having more “big picture” discussions, etc.

    You’re right that it’s a false dichotomy, and there are many more options between always asking for permission and using whatever you like from the internet without a care in the world–but in my current setting, I’m seeing much much more of the latter, which is why I’d like to encourage more thoughtful use of online resources, particularly images.

  11. When I first became a librarian I was the copyright police. I told everyone, “No you can’t without permission” for any kind of content that they wanted to use.

    However, I have left that role because I’ve realized how difficult it is to interpret the law and how the world has changed since the early days of copyright. I also know how seductive the availability of content is even when it’s illegal to access that content. For example, I find it very alluring to be able to download, illegally, something like the latest episode of Project Runway. It’s there, I can have it, so…. (I’m not saying I do download illegally but I am admitting the availability is quite compelling.)

    What I think is important from mk’s post is the fact that we have to have conversations with teens (and others) about this topic. We can’t give an easy answer of “no you can’t” and we have to be able to explain why the “no you can’t” is the case, even if the content is so easy to access illegally. We have to give teens the chance to make good choices, and they can’t make those choices if we have a pat response.

    In conversations with teens about content and copyright we can talk about why the law is the way it is. We can talk about how confusing it is. We can suggest that laws might need to change and give teens some support in helping to make that change.

    For a long time I’ve been suggesting to teens that they creative commons license their own work – music, mashups, images, research papers, poetry, etc. I do that because I think this is a great opportunity for them to think about what copyright and licensing is all about and consider what it means for them and for others.

    And, I think it needs to also be said, that we are certainly in a time of flux when it comes to copyright and that it’s a time when perhaps old models need to be changed to better support current needs, technology, and uses.

  12. I do want to clarify that the kind of image use I’m talking about might be different from the kind public librarians might experience. In my school setting, the vast majority of students using online images are pulling them straight from websites to put on a poster or a powerpoint. I’m not talking about students remixing images or videos, creating mashups, or otherwise creatively altering a work.

    So the struggle for me isn’t just one of understanding and discussing copyright and fair use, although clearly that’s involved–it’s also a question of whether this kind of use is actually helping students learn or understand. Does being able to find a diagram of a cell mean you understand cell structure?

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