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Reusing and Attributing Media

Created by Alice Lynn McMichael
Maintained by LEADR under the direction of Alice Lynn McMichael

Last Updated: 12/16/2017

These are some loose guidelines to use in LEADR workshops for students who need to use images in class projects. The information here could also apply to media other than images: sound files, videos, 3D models, multi-media projects, or even data sets. There are two threads to the discussion: attribution (academic citation) and reuse (licensing and rights). Be sure to remind students that this is not legal advice (for that they would need a copyright lawyer), and for further information they can consult a copyright librarian.


Just as you would cite written sources in a footnote or parenthetical note, it is important to cite images and other media as sources. The location and format of the citation will depend on the tool/platform and whether the professor has a preference.

Some common citation locations:

Attribution information should include the photographer/creator and source of the image (with a hyperlink or URL, if applicable). You may also want to include other information such as the title of the work, date, or other information that supports your argument or gives context. When the creator is not known, credit the publisher or editor of the website. If you are the creator of the image, provide that information as well.

Certain media platforms or repositories dictate citation practices in the terms of service. For instance, they may require a link back to the image on that platform. See Instagram’s Terms of Use or Flickr’s Community Guidelines for examples.

Choosing reliable sources for images is similar to finding scholarly sources for written work. For research, avoid using images that rely on Photoshop or filters to significantly alter the look of an object or monument. Cultural heritage organizations, museums, and university image collections, are more reliable than uncited sources or personal blogs. These cultural heritage organizations may use social media sites like Flickr, or their images may show up in a Google Image search or on Wikimedia Commons alongside with many other less reliable sources. Before re-using an image it is important to know the creator or publisher’s name, what kind of expertise they have, and how reliable their caption information is.

For further information on creating citations online, see LEADR’s “Active Citations” tutorial on GitHub.

The term copyright refers to the rights of a creator over their own work and how that work is reused. Copyright laws vary widely by country. These rights may be further clarified and expressed if the creator adopts a license or uses a rights statement. Some individuals, museums, digital archives, and cultural organizations encourage reuse while others do not. Stanford University Libraries offers a Copyright Overview online.

The MSU Library has these online resources as well:

Copyright and reuse information can be located in various places within websites: look for a Credits or About page, a copyright notice, or similar language. If you’re using an image from an online collection, copyright and reuse information may be in the image’s metadata and/or on a central page for the entire collection.

There are several ways to examine whether and how an image can be reused. Here are some of the most common:

Public Domain: When an image is in the public domain, that means that copyright has expired or is otherwise not applicable. The Copyright Advisory Network has a Public Domain Slider tool that offers guidelines for whether an image is in the public domain or is covered by copyright in the US.

Creative Commons licenses: We recommend that students use images that are published with a Creative Commons (CC) license. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that offers a set of licenses that people can apply to their work dictating how and when others can reuse it. For example, CC-BY means anyone can use it as long as they provide a credit, but CC-BY-NC means they can reuse it with a photo credit for non-commercial purposes only. As an example, the British Museum has a Copyright and Permissions page describing licenses and use cases for its collections, some of which has a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.

Permissions granted: Some websites or creators offer informal permissions or describe the conditions under which you can reuse media.

Rights statement: An institution or researcher may also use a rights statement to communicate their understanding of copyright and reuse status of a digital image. The rights statement usually offers information about how and when an image can be reused. For instance, a museum may allow only educational or non-commercial reuse of a digital photograph of one of the objects in its collection. An initiative called offers twelve options for cultural heritage institutions to guide potential users of their images.

Fair Use is a principle whereby copyrighted material in the US can be reused for certain purposes without needing to get special permission from the rights holder. A general rule of thumb is that a limited number of images or amount of information reused for educational can be considered Fair Use.

The right to use an image does not mean that you don’t have to attribute your source—for academic integrity, always give a photo credit or attribution, even if it isn’t legally required.

The information in this guide is meant to be guidelines and resources, not legal advice. For further information, contact an MSU copyright librarian at

Compiled by A.L. McMichael for LEADR on November 8, 2016.

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