Copyright Images in Teaching and Research

Gillian Dwyer, University of Surrey


If you engage in teaching or research activities, or give advice to those who do, you need to be aware of copyright issues. As soon as a work is created, it is automatically protected by copyright: this applies to digital as well as print material. The Internet makes copying very easy but, unless there is an explicit statement to say otherwise, works on the web including images such as photographs, film stills, diagrams and illustrations are covered by copyright, and you will usually need the permission of the copyright owner to make use of them.

Who owns copyright in a work?

The creator, such as the person who takes a photo, is generally the original copyright owner. If the work was created in the course of employment, copyright is owned by the employer unless a contract specifies otherwise. The owner can ‘assign’ (transfer) the copyright, or allow another person or organisation to license the work on their behalf, often in return for payment and/or on certain terms and conditions. Regardless of ownership, the creator also has moral rights, such as the right to be acknowledged as the person who created the work, and to object to any treatment deemed derogatory, which can include altering an artwork in any way without permission.

An image can have more than one copyright owner. For instance, a cartoon might be created by a number of artists and illustrators. Photographs of artistic works involve two separate copyrights: the artist’s work and the photographer’s. It is often difficult to trace the copyright owner of photographs, but in UK law such ‘orphan works’ are still under copyright. If you manage to contact the copyright owner and obtain permission, you will usually need to negotiate separately for every further use of the work. However, there are ways to make legal use of copyright material without the need to seek individual permissions.

When can you copy without permission?

When the copyright has expired

You do not need permission to copy material which is out of copyright. Copyright lasts for the lifetime of the creator plus an extended period following his or her death. In UK law this is usually 70 years.

When the work is used for specific acts permitted by law

The law recognises that students, teachers and researchers have a legitimate need to make use of copyright material: the ‘fair dealing’ exceptions in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 allow limited copying under certain circumstances. The extract should be accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement.

Fair dealing is not defined in law: it is a matter of judgement. You need to consider

  • Does using the work affect sales of that work? Could it act as a substitute causing the copyright owner to lose revenue?
  • Is the amount copied reasonable and appropriate? Usually only part of a work may be used and you should be able to demonstrate that it was necessary to use the amount taken.
  1. Private study and non-commercial research

It is generally accepted that one copy or print-out of an image may be made for the purpose of non-commercial research or private study.

  1. Criticism, review and quotation

This exception permits you to use an extract from a published work for criticism and review purposes, and in 2014 it was extended to cover quotation in general. The extent of the quotation should be “no more than is required by the specific purpose for which it is used” (The Copyright and Rights in Performances (Quotation and Parody) Regulations 2014). Taylor Wessing LLP (2014) comments: “with some works, such as paintings and photographs, the only use possible may be of the entire work so this could presumably fall within the exception.” The use must be illustrative and not purely for decoration.

  1. Illustration for instruction

You may make use of copyright works for teaching or examination purposes. Before last year, this exception was limited to non-reprographic copying, for example drawing on a blackboard, but in 2014 it was extended to encompass contemporary practice such as inclusion in PowerPoint presentations. The use must be illustrative not decorative and not be for a commercial purpose.

When the material is licensed for the intended use

Educational establishments hold collective licences and contracts from organisations such as the Copyright Licensing Agency, the Educational Recording Agency, NLA media access and the Ordnance Survey, which allow staff and students to copy protected works for educational purposes without having to seek individual rights holders’ permission. You must observe the relevant terms and conditions.

With the potential for creators to offer their works directly to the public via the Internet, use of Creative Commons’ licences is growing. Via a Creative Commons notice, creators specify the rights they are prepared to convey to others, such as the right to copy, distribute and adapt their work, provided attribution is given. You may make free use of appropriately licensed images. For further details refer to the Creative Commons website,

There are a number of specialist websites which offer copyright-cleared images for educational purposes. The JISC Digital Media website offers an online tutorial on finding a vast range of images for use in teaching and learning; see, plus a detailed written guide on Finding Video, Audio and Images Online; see

Wikimedia has an extensive list of sources of copyright-free images; see Check the websites’ terms and conditions to make sure that the licence covers your intended use. There are also a number of stock photo agencies, such as Getty Images, which license the use of images in return for payment.

When do you need to seek permission?

Unless your use falls into one of the above categories, you will need to ask permission from the copyright holder to make use of copyright images. In the case of images from books and journals, your first course of action is to contact the publisher. Look on the publisher’s website for information on rights / permissions / copyright clearance. If the publisher does not hold the rights to the work they should forward your enquiry to whoever does. In the case of images on websites look for the owner’s contact details: bear in mind that not all images have been uploaded legally.

In your request, be as specific as possible about the use you wish to make of the image(s). You should allow plenty of time: it can be difficult to track down the right person and it may be several weeks before you get a reply. Also bear in mind that the rights holder may impose conditions or charge a fee. Make sure that you get permission in writing and keep it for future reference. If the rights holder does not reply, you may choose to contact them again. Please note that a lack of response cannot be taken as permission to go ahead.


The Copyright and Rights in Performances (Quotation and Parody) Regulations 2014. SI 2014/2356. London: The Stationery Office.

Taylor Wessing LLP. 2014. Fair dealing with quotations. [Online]. [Accessed 22 April 2015]. Available from:

Refer 31 (2) Summer 2015


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