Library Tip Tuesday: Creative Commons Licensed Material

Library Tip Tuesday!

On Tuesdays, the Library brings you helpful tips for using your library resources more effectively. This Tuesday, we’re going to discuss finding and using Creative Commons and public domain resources and images.

The right image

The right visuals can make or break a presentation or blog post. Images catch our attention, pull us in, and can speak louder than words. Not only is finding the right image important, but so is finding the right reusable image.


Yeah, we said the “c” word. We’re familiar with the debates and controversies surrounding copyright restrictions, DMCA takedown notices, and the various other debates surrounding copyright – but that’s not the focus of today’s post. Regardless of how you feel (or we feel, or anyone feels) about copyright, many of the images retrieved by a Google image search are copyrighted and are therefore unavailable for use without express permission of the copyright holder at this moment in time.

An exception to copyright, fair use, does allow for the use of copyrighted material without permission in works that are commentary, criticism, or parody of the original, as well as works that are educational, used for research, scholarship, or news reporting. So, though using a copyrighted image in an academic presentation could possibly be considered fair use, others might not necessarily agree. We encourage you to read up on fair use doctrine before you apply it in your academic and creative endeavors.

The Public Domain and Creative Commons

If you don’t want to worry about whether or not your use falls under fair use, there are two options available to you: Creative Commons licensed media and media in the public domain.

Public domain images are those that have passed out of copyright, or those that were never copyrighted in the first place (including government documents).  Your other option, Creative Commons (CC) licensed work, is material available for reuse under certain terms and conditions. Creative Commons licenses work within the current copyright system to allow content creators to keep their rights while still allowing others to use and benefit from their work. Provided you follow the terms laid out in the specific licenses, you can reuse CC licensed material freely.

Creative Commons symbols
De-mystifying Creative Commons licenses. Image: Ordering of CC Licenses by is licensed by CC ShareAlike 4.0

You do not need to ask permission to use media in the public domain or media licensed under Creative Commons, but you do need to attribute your author and make sure you’re following everything laid out in the CC license.

Finding Material

A search engine (like Google) will likely be the first place you go when searching for media. Like we said before, most of what you find in a default Google Image Search will be copyrighted, or have an unknown copyright status – but there’s something you can do about that. Within the “Search Tools” menu, find the option for Usage Rights. From there, you can limit your search to items that are available for reuse, with or without modification and for commercial or noncommercial purposes.


search tools
Google image search tools.

However, depending on your search terms, Google may not return as much as you may hope. If you find that to be the case, there are alternatives! The Flickr Creative Commons portal lets users search millions of photos by license type. Flickr’s default search also gives users the option to sort and search by license type, just as Google.

Flickr search options

Using Material

Once you’ve found the right image, it’s time to use it. Remember that “free to use” doesn’t mean “free to use without attribution,” and make sure you cite accordingly. If a particular citation style isn’t called for in your project, presentation, or paper, then take a look at the Creative Commons Wiki’s best practices for attribution. As always, your librarians are only a mouse click or phone call away if you have a question regarding proper attribution.

Additional Resources

Creative Commons licenses don’t apply to just images – any intellectual material can be CC licensed.

If you have more questions regarding copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons, head over to our research guide.

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