Skip to Main Content

Visual Literacy

When Using Images

Visually literate student should understands many of the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues surrounding the creation and use of images and visual media, and accesses and uses visual materials ethically.

Copyright Law

Copyright in General

Full Text of the Copyright Law of the United States is available for free at

Copyright gives creators protections for writings as well as images they make and generally means that you can not reuse or change other people's work without their permission.

Copyright law can be complicated and we have a Librarian, Kate Dickson, who specialize in it. She can help answer difficult questions. 


Fair Use

§107 · Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use is covered in Chapter 1: Subject Matter and the Scope of Copyright

There are many stipulations that may qualify something under copyright to be used under the limitation of fair use. Please review the link above for more information on determining fair use. 


Fair use of a copyrighted work is the reproduction of a work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.

Fair Use in the Classroom:

  1. Purpose and character of your use
  2. Nature of the copyrighted work
  3. Amount and substantiality of the portion taken
  4. Effect of the use upon the potential market

Special cases:

  • Thumbnail size reproductions online
  • Parodies (Humorous form of social commentary and literary criticism in which one work imitates another. Example below shows the painting American Gothic by Grant Wood and two parodies.) 


American Gothic and Parodies



Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) License give creators a way to tell people if an how their materials can be used, modified, and shared. CC license layout if you can reuse an image, if you need to credit the creator, if you can modify the image. Look for a CC that may be followed by other letters or symbols and consult the list of Create Commons License Options for the mean of each license types. 


Open Access

Open access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.


Caught in the Act

If you don't follow copyright and licensing laws or properly cite images, there can be consequences. Best case scenario, the owner of the work may contact you to ask that you stop using an image, but there could be legal issues as well that could result in fines. 

Here is an example of a performing artist asking people to not use her intellectual property without permission, HOWEVER, she used a copyrighted image in her request without getting permission. You can see the Shutterstock watermark embedded in the image.


Watermarked Image


Citation Manuals

Citation Examples

Chicago Style


  • Include artist's name, title of work (italicized), medium, measurements and the institution which houses the work.
  • Include the source the image came from preceded by a statement which declares the source (for example 'In: ' or 'Source: ' or 'Available from: ').
  • Be sure to include the URL and date accessed if your source is online.


1. Image from a database:

Hoshiko, Eugene. "China Rain." Photograph. 1999. AP Images, ID99062401980.

2. Image from a website:

Wilma, David. "El Centro de la Raza, Beacon Hill, Seattle." Photograph. 2001., (accessed September 25, 2010).

3. Image from a printed source:

Alevei Savrasov, The Rooks Have Arrived, 1871, in Dmitri V. Sarabianov, Russian Art: From Neoclassicism to the Avant-Garde 1800-1917: Painting – Sculpture - Architecture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1990), 169, plate 31.




  • Include artist's name (last name, first name), date (in parentheses), title of work, and work type (in brackets).
  • Medium and measurements and institution which houses the work may be included after the work type.
  • Include the source from which the image came
    • For books, start with "From" followed by an italicized title, page number in parentheses, "by" the author, followed by date and publication information
    • For electronic resources, start with "Retrieved" and include retrieval date (month day, year) and "from: " followed by the URL.


1. Image from a database:

Rousseau, H. (1896). The ship in the storm [Painting]. Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris. Retrieved from Oxford Art Online database.

2. Image from a website:

Rousseau, H. (1896). The ship in the storm [Painting]. Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris. Retrieved from

3. Image from a printed source:

Muybridge, E. [Photograph of a horse running]. (1887). National Gallery, London. River of shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the technological wild West. By Rebecca Solnit. New York, NY: Viking. 52.

Note: If an image does not have a title, create a brief title and place it in [] without italics.




  • Include artist's name, title of work (italicized), date of composition, medium of the reproduction and complete publication information of the source, including page, figure or plate numbers.
  • Medium of original work may be included.
  • Including URLs in citations of online resources is optional.
  • If just referenced in a text, list artist's name, title of work (italicized), date of composition, medium and name of institution that houses the collection.


1. Image from a database:

Francisco de Goya. 1800. King Charles IV of Spain and his Family. Place: Museo del Prado.

2. Image from a website:

Goya, Francisco. The Family of Charles IV. 1800. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Museo Nacional del Prado, Accessed 22 May 2006.

3. Image from a printed source:

Sarabianov, Dmitri V.  Russian Art: From Neoclassicism to the Avant-Garde 1800-1917: Painting – Sculpture – Architecture. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publishers, 1990.