top of page
  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Ethical & legal use of images in science & science communication (Using Images Primer, part 1)

Updated: Jan 26

When you are looking for great images to communicate about science, the internet is a treasure trove. But it is easy to overstep legal and ethical boundaries.


Where your images come from, and how you get them, matters. (Sketching jackrabbit specimens, © B.G. Merkle, 2017)

This article is the first in a series aimed at helping you enhance your scicomm and sciart by avoiding visual plagiarism. 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.



Images are a crucial element of compelling science communication.

After all, something like 50% of our brains are keyed in to visual stimuli. And, more than ever, compelling images are easy to find on the internet. That makes the internet a powerful visual scicomm tool.

However, like most tools, how you use the internet to source images can have serious implications — in this case for your outreach, reputation, and efficacy.

No matter the use — presenting during a lab meeting, to a public audience, in a classroom, at a conference, or communicating via websites, news agencies, press offices, and social media — using images ethically and legally is an important part of the scicomm and sciart process. 

To help you do this, this article series is comprised of several sections: Definitions and Tips (covered today). As the series continues, we’ll also talk about Top Image SourcesHow to find the creator/copyright holder of an image you want to useWorking with an Illustrator, and Commissioning Custom Images.


Let’s start with a few definitions, so we’re all on the same page.

1. First, this article is written from the point of view of image creators and users operating in the U.S. And, while many other companies have related (and sometimes similar) legislation and legal precedents, it is important to know and follow the legal requirements of the jurisdiction in which you operate.

2. Copyrights

According to the 1976 U.S. Copyright Law, “A form of protection provided by the laws of the United States for “original works of authorship”, including literary, dramatic, musical, architectural, cartographic, choreographic, pantomimic, pictorial, graphic, sculptural, and audiovisual creations. “Copyright” literally means the right to copy but has come to mean that body of exclusive rights granted by law to copyright owners for protection of their work. Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, title, principle, or discovery. Similarly, names, titles, short phrases, slogans, familiar symbols, mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, coloring, and listings of contents or ingredients are not subject to copyright.”

3. License

A license gives you the right to reproduce an image. Subject to a range of constraints agreed upon by the image creator (or copyright holder) and the individual or entity wishing to reproduce the image. Reproduction licenses are often obtained by purchase, and as such, represent a valuable and essential means of monetizing visual work of an image creator.

Note that many images are licensed by their copyright holders for free use under a range of simple conditions, with Creative Commons being the most prominent such licensing system.

4. Image Reproduction

Want to read more?

Subscribe to to keep reading this exclusive post.

Subscribe Now
bottom of page