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Dear Otto: What Online Images are Free?

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Dear Otto is an occasional column where I answer questions I get from readers about teaching tech. If you have a question, please complete the form below and I’ll answer it here. For your privacy, I use only first names.

Here’s a great question I got:

I am having my kids create websites that will not be shared publicly. They are “Googling” images and I just want to know what are the copyright rules for such images? Should I limit their images only from certain “free” graphic sites? Just confused by all the rules like creative commons, public domain, copyright etc.. They asked if they can use pictures from Microsoft and I honestly don’t know what the rules are or how to explain them in 4th grade terms.The kids are not trying to sell anything, just creating a site as a way to share their research. They know how to site online resources that contain facts but not sure what to do with images. Is just providing the URL from the website that the image was on acceptable?

Maybe, if those images are copyright-free. If they aren’t, you just can’t use them.

A couple rules of thumb apply:

  • Online images are fine (including Google):
    • if the images themselves don’t show copyright notices. Some do and those must be avoided. Others have easily-identifiable sources like NASA or Hubble. Many are copies of copies with no origination trail.
    • if a single copy is required for scholarly research or use in teaching or preparation to teach a class.
    • if the image has fallen into the ‘public domain’
  • But don’t assume online images are fine without verifying that conclusion. Show students how to look for evidence of copyright protections (see below), watermarks, and any notifications about fair use.

Before using these images, take time to introduce students to the ideas of copyright protections and privacy issues. I explain what those are, demonstrate how to use best practices to avoid infringing. I teach this unit every year, making the details age-appropriate and more thorough as students mature in their understanding of the process.

Here’s a good list of copyright-free image/clip art websites:

Although these are great, they are too limiting for inquiring minds, sometimes not age-appropriate (Google has safe search which helps keep images specific to an age group) and unnecessary. Remember what we teach students about using the internet: What goes up there is public for all to see and steal (by ‘steal’, I mean: Be aware that what you put up on the internet, people will re-use, quote with attribution, claim as their own, feeling protected by the vastness of the internet). The same applies to images.

The table below explains the the symbols used in creative commons licences:

Creative Commons

For a good YouTube on how Creative Commons is working to share the wealth, click here.

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Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and five ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy midshipman. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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14 thoughts on “Dear Otto: What Online Images are Free?

  1. My understanding is that there is no need to show a copyright notice because is all writing and all images automatically are copyrighted upon their creation.

    • In a sense that’s true–intellectual property laws protect the product of one’s creativity (I’m not a copyright attorney so I’m generalizing it’s application as I know it). But, it’s very difficult for the creator to protect his property when it’s out on the web. So the responsibility must rest on the user to insure they took the proper steps in insuring that the images were available to be copied. Many images are freely available for educational uses, but many others are protected, often easily-identified by a watermark from the creator. Or, if a student finds an image they like, often the collection website will provide guidelines for use. For example, Google Images takes you to the original website. There, you can review that image’s guidelines (if available).

  2. Either I am interpreting what you are communicating all wrong or perhaps I am too conservative in my copyright views… A couple of your points concerned me –

    1. The implication that the responsibility of protecting and respecting a person’s work rests more heavily on the person who originally posts the information: “A rule of thumb is Google Images is fine if the images themselves don’t show copyright notices.” I teach the opposite, that students should only use images that have been presented as available for sharing. Since anyone has the ability to steal images, who is to say that the blog your student lifted an image from didn’t illegally take that image from someone else? Pleading ignorance doesn’t work so well if an image’s original owner decides to make an example through legal action. The exception would be the coverage of Educational Fair Use but even then you need to cite your source.

    2. “Remember what we teach students about using the internet: What goes up there is public for all to see and steal.” I’m hoping you teach that so students will protect their original work, not so they will feel justified in actually stealing someone else’s work.

    The reason I feel the need to be so conservative is that while the rules of Educational Fair Use may cover our students while they are creating tech for school, one day SOON they will be out and using technology for their private use (some of them are doing it right now!) and they need to understand how the real world works.

    So my advice is, teach kids how to find and use images in a way that is acceptable in the “real world” or better yet, give them the tools to create their own media as much as they possibly can! 🙂

    • I don’t disagree, Elizabeth. Fair use of images is difficult in elementary school because the reasoning behind copyrights is rather sophisticated for young minds. The law states that works of art created in the U.S. after January 1, 1978, are automatically protected by copyright once they are fixed in a tangible medium (like the internet) BUT a single copy may be used for scholarly research (even if that’s a 2nd grade life cycle report) or in teaching or preparation to teach a class. That’s got to do with ‘fair use guidelines’ and when an image passes into the public domain. The question is: When a creator posts it on the internet without fair notice that it cannot be used for any purpose, is it in the ‘public domain’? I take time to share that concept with students before they use online images. In 2nd grade, I walk the classroom as they search and guide them in selections, using their choices as teachable moments.

      I would say I’m less conservative than your approach. My students are all seeking images for a single-use purpose, and that is always educational. My additional goal is to teach them how to carry that over into life purposes (as you mention).

      Do you never use Google or Bing images, rather use one of the collections I’ve mentioned? Every year, I’ve tried to do that and failed starting in 2nd grade with their life cycle reports. There just aren’t enough images of the different stages in an animal’s life.

      • Unfortunately, several images sites are blocked through our school system so we can’t even access Google Images or Bing Images or Flickr. We tend to use our reliable research websites for images under Educational Fair Use and help kids cite their source, even if all they do is copy and paste the web address or tell us the name of the website it came from. We have access to World Book Online through the Tennessee Electronic Library so we use that and other databases stored there a lot. We also pull from sites like National Geographic, Biography.com, etc. Sometimes it’s better to start with a website on your subject and see what images you can glean from them.

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