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Pause Before Downloading: Rules and Resources for Reusing Digital Content in the Classroom

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Photo by US Department of Education vi Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“Why can’t I use this picture?” This is a question my students often ask whenever they are looking for images on the Internet for projects they create in my class.

My response is always this: “If you go into a store and you see merchandise you like on the sales floor, can you take it without paying for it?”

In this era of digital media, where almost everything is searchable and downloadable, it’s easy to see why students, and even teachers, think that it’s perfectly fine to reuse another’s creator’s work. However, this is not always true.

Myths and Facts

Let’s look at some commonly held misconceptions of copyright law.

Myth No 1: You can always claim fair use.


Fact: Fair use isn’t a legislative right, it’s a legal defense you can use in a court of law. However, that doesn’t mean you will avoid legal repercussion simply by using this argument. To learn more, read Harvard University’s guide on copyright and fair use.

Myth No. 2: If it’s copyright protected, then you can’t use it.

Fact: The creator of the work owns the copyright. If you are able to obtain permission from the creator, then you can reproduce it.

Myth No. 3: It’s not copyright protected because it doesn’t say that it is.

Fact: It depends on when the work was originally created. Copyright laws have been amended a few times over the course of the 20th century, so you’ll have to check the work in question. However, as of March 1, 1989, all work is automatically copyright protected, and a copyright notice isn’t necessary for work to receive this protection. The United States Copyright Office explains this in more detail here.

Myth No. 4: As long as you cite the creator of the work, you don’t have to worry about copyright.

Fact: Citing work avoids plagiarism, but you can be in danger of copyright infringement. Check out this explanation from Duke University Libraries’ Web page for further clarification.


How can students incorporate media into their projects without violating copyright laws? Luckily, there are three options:

  1. Use creative work that accompanied by a Creative Commons license. Creative Commons is an organization dedicated to helping creators share their work with the world. People who publish their work with a Creative Commons license are allowing others to reuse their work on their terms.
  2. Use work in the public domain. These creations are not subjected to copyright laws because either the copyright has expired or the creator has decided to give up his or her rights to the work. In the latter example, creators will declare this on their work.
  3. Create original work. Students are incredibly creative. Depending on their talents and inclinations, they can create hand-drawn illustrations, make their own computer graphics, or take their own photographs. With the right digital tools, students can create their own original videos, music, images or audio.

Project Resources

I’ve gathered a few resources for students to use when incorporating media created by others. Don’t forget to tell students to verify the usage rights of all works before using them. In addition, keep in mind that when searching on the Internet, there is always the potential to come across inappropriate content. Before using any of the following search engines, check that it has been vetted by your school’s content filters. Also tell your students to turn on SafeSearch — if it’s an option on the website.

  1. Creative Commons Search allows you to search for Creative Commons–licensed images, videos, and music.
  2. Google Advanced Image Search allows you to filter your search by image size, aspect ratio, color and more. The most important thing to remember is to scroll down to the end of the search fields and choose the correct “Usage rights” option.
  3. Pixabay is a website with many beautiful public domain images. Remember not to  click on the sponsored links (those are not in the public domain), and you’ll find many great options.
  4. Photosforclass is fantastic for the classroom. All photos are all Creative Commons licensed, filtered for appropriate images and come with an automatic citation when you download a photo.
  5. Openclipart provides clipart that is all in the public domain
  6. Flickr This link will take you to Flickr’s search portal. You must click on “any license” to filter for the correct license.
  7. Wikipedia usually features work with Creative Commons license or those in the public domain.
  8. Pics4learning states on its homepage that it offers “a curated image library that is safe and free for education. Teachers and students can use the copyright-friendly photos and illustrations for classroom projects, websites, videos, portfolios or any other projects in an educational setting.”
  9. Foter has free stock photos. When choosing an image, users are guided through an attribution process that could be helpful for students.
  10. Library of Congress is the government’s website of online prints and photographs.

Giving Credit Attribution

As with textual research, giving credit is always something we should teach our students. However, most students are unsure how to cite images in their projects. Though MLA or APA citations are appropriate for academic papers, these look clumsy in a project or in published media. When providing attribution, include the name of the work (if known), the name of the creator and the usage rights. Also include hyperlinks to the creator and the Creative Commons license in the citation. Here is an example of how to cite images with hyperlinks: “Beach” by Sean MacEntee / CC BY 2.0. To download an infocard to show students how to include credit attribution, click here.

Time to Get Students Creating

In the 21st century, understanding how to properly use digital content is an essential skill. Following copyright laws isn’t difficult if students follow guidelines and use the right resources. Isn’t it time we showed them how?


Editors Note: For more about Copyright and Fair Use and how to navigate this complicated landscape, check out “Understanding Copyright & Fair Use.” It’s one on many free professional learning courses that can be found at KQED Teach

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