top of page
  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Finding the Creator…and Asking for Permission (Using Images-A Best Practices Primer, Part 3)

This article is the third in a series aimed at helping you enhance your #scicomm and #sciart by avoiding #visualplagiarism. It will do so by laying out some best practices for dealing with images (which are, by their nature) visual intellectual property protected by copyrights.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, and no part of this article or series should be construed as legal advice. 

Please chime in, in the comments or by contacting me, if you have suggestions for how to enhance this article or the series.

How to access Google's reverse image search (see photo), plus their help info re using it:….— CommNatural/BGMerkle (@commnatural) August 04, 2016


In the first article in this series, we looked at essential definitions at play when using images and a lot of image use tips. In the second article, we looked at public domain, creative commons, and other free image sources.

In this article, we’ll focus on tips for finding the creator of an image you want to use and asking for permission to reproduce it.

1. Perhaps the most important tip to keep in mind for this article comes from Stephen B. Heard (of the SciComm blog Scientist Sees Squirrel): “An image may be widely reproduced so you can’t tell what’s the original use; or the creator may have a defunct email address, or have a cryptic username with no contact info.  I frequently fail to find the creator.  In that case, it’s simple – can’t find the creator, so can’t ask; so move on to a different image!”

2. In the internet age, there’s really no excuse not to ask for permission before reproducing or otherwise using others’ images, as several science communicators make clear.

.@commnatural definitely. I think if you really want to use a certain pic, ask the creator! But not excuse to use a copyrighted one. — Dr. Paige Jarreau (@FromTheLabBench) August 3, 2016

@commnatural it's been discussed a lot in the science blogging community. It's serious business. Nobody wants to steal someone else's work. — Kirk Englehardt (@kirkenglehardt) August 3, 2016

.@commnatural definitely. I think if you really want to use a certain pic, ask the creator! But not excuse to use a copyrighted one. — Dr. Paige Jarreau (@FromTheLabBench) August 3, 2016

That being said, it can be challenging to find the creator of an image you’d like to use. The following tools and resources should help.

3. The U.S. Copyright Office provides a handy fact sheet to help you.

US Copyright Office re "How to Obtain Permission" to reproduce copyrighted material: — CommNatural/BGMerkle (@commnatural) August 3, 2016

4. Use Google’s Image Search to finding the creator of an image you want to use:

Type a word or phrase into the Google search bar, then click on “Images” rather than just searching the web. This will narrow the search results so that you only have to look through images.


Images found in a Google Search

Note that these images DO NOT belong to Google. They are simply “collected” via Google’s search functions (again, think of the library analogy* from earlier articles). Thus, the images you see in a Google search actually belong to the people who created the images, and/or the people who have permission to use them online.

To figure out if an image you find via this type of search is available for re-use, click on the image. Then, click on the link that says “view page” (the left gray rectangle, in the row of two gray and then one orange rectangles to the right of the image, as pictured below).


Options for viewing more information about an image in a Google Search. Select the left button (“View page”) to go to the source page.

This will redirect you to the actual web page where that image is posted. Read the page carefully to see if you can figure out a) who took the photo and b) if it is available under a license that allows for the kind of reproduction you have in mind.


Source webpage of the image found in a Google Search

If the webpage makes clear the image is not available under the kind of license you need, and/or is not in the public domain, you have two options. They are the same options if the webpage does not specify reproduction availability of the image.

  1. Contact the image creator and ask for the right to reproduce the photo.

  2. Find a different image.

5. Wikimedia Commons provides lots of public domain images, but not all images on Wikimedia Commons are in the public domain. Here’s how to figure out the difference. 

As seen in the screen shots above, the logo of the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph (a community newspaper in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada) can be found on Wikipedia.

However, without digging a bit deeper, you don’t know if it is is an image that you can reproduce yourself.

Follow the steps outlined in the following screen shots to see how to figure out if an image on Wikipedia is available for your reuse.


6. Use Google Reverse Image Search or TinEye’s Reverse Image Search to find the creator of an image you didn’t find through an image search.

How to access Google's reverse image search (see photo), plus their help info re using it: — CommNatural/BGMerkle (@commnatural) August 4, 2016

Let’s say you see a research report on caribou migration or monarch butterflies or the type of lichen you study, and in it is a great image you’d love to use in your conference talk next week. But, the report hasn’t provided attribution, and you don’t know the report authors, so you don’t know how to figure out who to ask to reproduce the image.

Well, you could use Google’s well-known and widely-used image search to try to find the image. But, there is a less-utilized function in Google and other platforms like TinEye that will likely be far more efficient as you look for the person who can actually provide permission to reproduce an image you like.

In essence, you can upload the image file or insert a URL of that image (from where it exists online), rather than entering key words.

This enables you to start with the image itself and work backward to find the creator or copyright holder.

Keep digging (perhaps using some of the previous tools) until you find an image credit or find the image on the creator’s own platform, or you find a place where the image use is attributed.

Then, get in touch with the creator to arrange reproduction permission.

Click here for Reverse Image Search-Help, which explains in more detail how to use this service.

Find the creator/copyright holder of an image you want to use with Google image search: — CommNatural/BGMerkle (@commnatural) August 4, 2016

In the next article in this series, Working with an Illustrator, we’ll talk about how to create your own images, commission them, and more.


Many thanks to Stephen B. Heard, whose insightful comments on an earlier draft ensured this version was more reader-friendly. Thanks, also, to Paige Jarreau, Glendon Mellow, Kirk Englehardt, Jonny Armstrong, and others who chimed in during the initial Twitter conversations that inspired this article.

*Megan Duffy pointed out on Twitter that Alex Wild (an entomologist and insect photographer with generous track record of discussing visual copyright infringement issues on his website, at Scientific American online, and elsewhere) used a similar library analogy (likely long before I did, as he’s been writing about this subject longer). I’ve found great article of his on Scientific American, which contains a library analogy which might be the one Megan was thinking of. It’s a fantastic article showing the difference between correct attribution and incorrect attribution: How to credit images found in the Wikimedia Commons.

#scicommadvice #teacherresource #creativecommons #teacherresources #publicdomain #usingimagesabestpracticesprimer #makingsciencematter #resource #marketing #usingimageslegally #tips #tip #communicationstip #visualscicomm

1 view0 comments
bottom of page