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Fair Use: Using Images and Non-Textual Materials in Presentations, Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Fair Use

This guide offers basic information on using images and media in research. Reasonable use of images and media in teaching, course papers, and graduate theses/dissertations is generally covered by fair use.

The Basics

This guide offers basic information on using images and other non-textual materials in presentations, papers, and theses/dissertations.  Reasonable use of images and media in teaching, course papers, and graduate theses/dissertations is generally covered by fair use.  Researchers are expected to document each image (including their own) and its provenance/source to the best of their abilities.  When possible, and particularly for publication purposes, it is advisable to contact the owner or creator.  Libraries, archives, and other organizations that own visual materials will often allow use of images in an educational setting without charging a fee. They may charge a fee for use of visual materials in publication.

A topically related guide is Organizing Research for Arts and Humanities Papers and Theses.

The Visual Resources Association (VRA) in its statement on fair use of images for teaching, research and study notes that use of images in scholarship is fundamental to the advancement of collective knowledge. Thesis research adds original argument and places images in a different context from the original, typically aesthetic, aim of the copyright owner of the image.  Inclusion of an image in a thesis frequently benefits the creator of that image and the creator of any work depicted in the image.  The VRA suggests that researchers are best positioned to assert fair use if:

  • Significant commentary, or other original content, accompanies images included in the thesis;
  • Conversely, images included in a thesis are subject of commentary or illustrate a scholarly argument, and are not included for purely aesthetic purposes;
  • Images are incorporated at a size/resolution necessary to make the best scholarly argument;
  • Attributions are provided to the copyright owner of the image, where known;
  • The circulation and distribution of the thesis through online websites or repositories is consistent with academic practices or requirements set forth by the degree-granting institution.


Additional Selected Resources on Copyright and Fair Use:

  • The USC Policy about copyright and copyright compliance may be found on the web site of the Office of Chief Information Officer;
  • Columbia University Libraries have a very handy Fair Use Checklist;
  • Stanford University libraries maintain a web site on copyright and fair use;
  • The Association of Research Libraries has an excellent info-graphic on the myths and facts of Fair Use. Published in February 2017;
  • The Harvard University Office of Scholarly Communication published a clear info-graphic on Fair Use in 2017. While geared toward the Harvard University community, its information is clear and accessible;
  • The Association of American Universities provides a Permissions FAQ on Author Responsibilities and Copyright Guidelines;
  • Last but not least, the American Library Association's Office of Information Technology Policy has a Copyright Advisory Network which provides links to such resources as Fair Use Evaluator, Public Domain Slider, etc.

Subject Guide

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Ruth Wallach
(213) 740-6917
Doheny Memorial Library
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0189