Good news! You CAN search for free-to-use photos

Downtown Orange, California, Dec. 1937

Downtown Orange, California, Dec. 1937. Some rights reserved by Orange County Archives (CC BY 2.0).

A very conscientious teacher recently asked me if she could legally use photos found in a Google Image search.  I’ve adapted here the response I gave.

First, don’t trust me alone on this.  Check this post from The Edublogger that is well-written.  It also has a good list of  sources of usable images.

Using photos found in a Google search “may” result in breaking copyright.  It depends on the actual source of the images, and unlike many believe, Google is not the source.  It all depends on the limitations the creator/owner has placed on the use of its images.

Ethical image searching/using begins with an understanding that the default and automatic copyright status for anyone’s creation is “all rights reserved” – meaning no one but the creator has any rights to do anything with the image.

The good news is that more and more creators are learning how to post their images online in a way that clearly states their intentions and conditions for sharing.

The conscientious teacher who I responded to was looking for photos from the history of the city of Orange.  So, to demonstrate the possibilities, I went to the Google Image search page and entered: city of orange historical (there are other phrases worth trying also).  Of course, I got lots of hits and what looked like a good selection of images.  But that doesn’t mean they’re all usable.

From the Search Tools menu in Google, I then changed Usage Rights from “not filtered by license” to “labeled for reuse”.

Usage Rights menu choice

Now those shown are probably OK to use, but I don’t trust Google to always get this right.  I prefer to go closer to the source.  So, as I hover over each of the image thumbnails in Google, I see that almost all of them either come from Wikipedia (or Wikimedia Commons) or  I’ve learned that almost anytime I limit the usage rights like this in a Google search, the vast majority of resulting images are from these two sites.  Both of these sites are very good at documenting the licensing of images.  The lesson is that Google isn’t the first place I go to for images if I want to know usage rights; instead, take out middle man (Google) and go directly to sites that you know show the usage rights.

So, then I went to with this search for historical photos of the city of Orange.  I typed my same search criteria in the search field and got plenty of results.  But, again, that doesn’t mean I can use any of those.  In Flickr, you need to go to “Advanced Search” to do a search limited by usage rights.  The link to “Advanced Search” will be right under the search field at top right:

Advanced Search link in

On the Advanced Search page, scroll down toward the bottom to the choices for Creative Commons and at least select the first choice.

Creative Commons settings

Now the search results “should” include images you are free to use if you follow the creator’s Creative Commons stipulations.  All Creative Commons images require attribution.  The creator can also set  the license to allow or not allow actions like commercial use, share-alike, modification, etc.  Note that not all work by the same creator is marked with the same license. 

After I choose an image in Flickr, I always scroll down the image’s web page to verify the usage rights.  If it says, “All rights reserved” (example)– I can’t use it.  If it says, “Some rights reserved” (example) – I click on the link to read the actual limits of the license which, thanks to Creative Commons, are written in easily understandable language.  If it’s an image I can use, then I take note of the URL, the creator’s name or username, and the type of Creative Commons license (e.g., CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) since I’ll want to use these in my attribution.

All rights reserved  OR Some rights reserved

Then in Flickr, I like to download the size of the image that best suits my purposes.  This isn’t obvious to find, but it’s the choice “View all sizes” in the popup menu with the 3 dots:

View all sizes

For this example search, it’s also worth checking Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons for photos.  All images in these sites clearly show usage rights.  (In Wikipedia articles, click on the image to go to the page that shows the rights – example.)

Anyway, the good news is that there are ethical ways to find and use images from the web today.  This is definitely something we must teach and demonstrate for today’s students in a positive way.  In my opinion, finding images clearly marked with usage rights is liberating as I have no sense of guilt when I can read the creator’s own choice of words that allow me to use their work.

And, if you really want to use an image that’s marked “All rights reserved,” try asking the creator for permission.  I’ve done this before and have never been turned down for an educational use.

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