Information Resources: Images on the Web: Findable, Usable, but What’s Legit?

Key Words: images, Internet, copyright, fair use

Images on the Internet

The Internet engages us, not only because it takes us to unexpected places with content to explore, but also because the trip is complete with images and sounds. So in this multimedia wonderland, how can one find images and, as importantly, use them responsibly?

What types of images are there?

Most images found on the Web are in one of two standard formats: JPEG (Joint Pictures Expert Group) or GIF (Graphic Interchange Format). JPEG usually has the file extension of .jpg. It is the optimal format for real-life photographs because it creates a smaller file through compression while maintaining high visual quality. A more restricted color palette limits GIF. Therefore, if it is used for an image that has more colors than the GIF can support, it approximates colors resulting in loss of quality. It is, however, the ideal format for computer-generated graphical images, which typically use a more restricted color palette or are in grayscale or in black and white. An animated GIF provides a Web viewer with repetitive movement and is actually a set of multiple GIF images stored in the same image file. The playing of these sequentially achieves the animation.

Other less common image formats are TIFF (high quality, no compression, large files) and PNG (high quality, compression resulting in files smaller than TIFF). Later versions of Web browsers now support PNG images, and it is expected that eventually PNG will replace GIF because it supports 16 million colors as compared to 256 colors for GIF. Proprietary image formats include (PSD—PhotoShop, PSP—Paint Shop Pro, and BMP—Microsoft). To be used on the Web, proprietary formats are converted into JPEG or GIF.

Technically, how can I get an image from the Web?

Step 1: Save.

PC users can save a Web image by right clicking on the mouse. A menu will appear with the choice to "Save Image As ...." Clicking on this will give you a dialog box so that you can specify where you wish the image to be saved. Mac users can click on the image and by holding the mouse button see the saving options.

Step 2: Insert.

After the image has been saved, it is possible to "insert" it into a document using a variety of applications. In Microsoft Word, for example, you would click on "Insert" and then "Picture" and "From File."

Okay, but what about appropriate use?

Computers and Internet access make it technically easy to copy and use another’s words, music, or images, but capability does not translate into the right to use. Copyright law covers materials found on the Internet, although issues particular to the digital environment have yet to be adequately addressed. The Digital Dilemma published by the National Research Council in 2000 provides an informative discussion of the issues surrounding the need to balance both rights and access. Another useful text is Commonsense Copyright (Talab, 1999), which offers guidelines for educators and librarians to use materials responsibly, yet apply fair use when appropriate. The following does not provide a legal interpretation of the law, but highlights some of the issues important to consider when interested in using images from the Web.


Copyright law is designed to protect the rights of the copyright owner, although it may not always be clear who the copyright owner is. However, you should assume that any work fixed in a tangible medium and created since 1989 has automatically received copyright protection, since formal application after that date was no longer necessary. The law states: "Copyright protection subsists … in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed" (17 U.S.C.§102,

Public Domain

Material in the public domain is free from copyright restrictions. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law (1996) defines public domain as "the realm or status of property rights that belong to the community at large, are unprotected by copyright or patent, and are subject to appropriation by anyone." Unfortunately, determining public domain status is not always straightforward. Changes in law have redefined when a formerly copyrighted work passes into the public domain. A chart by Hirtle (1999) outlines the timing of when a work is now considered to be in the public domain.

The works of one major publisher are, for the most part, in the public domain—the Federal Government. Except where it is exempted by law, the Federal Government is precluded by 17 U.S.C. §105 ( from holding copyright protection for its works. However, the trend toward privatization and commercialization of government information now places more of this material under copyright protection.

Permission to Use

The Copyright Office at Library of Congress admonishes "acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission" ( Obtaining permission can be difficult indeed—to identify the actual copyright holder and to determine how to contact.

The layers of rights in an image are impossibly convoluted and layered. Creators or their estates, owning institutions such as museums and archives, photographers who document the creations of others, writers who describe and analyze the creations of others, and the publishers of those writers and photographers all can be the copyright owner ... Even if one knew whom to approach, obtaining permission is incredibly difficult. The rights holders, especially museums, have complex agreements and multiple demands, ranging from approved levels of resolution, color fidelity, requirements prescribing their preferred spelling of creator name and object titles, limits on permitted uses and users, not to mention extraordinary fees. (Snow, n.d.)

The Copyright Office suggests: "When it is impracticable to obtain permission, use of copyrighted material should be avoided unless the doctrine of ‘fair use’ would clearly apply to the situation" ( A discussion of fair use follows.

Fair Use

The law does place limits on exclusive rights of the copyright holder by providing for fair use of a copyrighted work.

The fair use of a copyrighted work ... for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include-

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. (17 U.S.C.§107,

Interpreting these "fair use" provisions is not completely straightforward when dealing with print materials. It is less so when trying to apply the provisions to digital works. To address these issues, the Working Group on Intellectual Property Rights, under the auspices of the Federal Information Infrastructure Task Force, convened the Conference on Fair Use (CONFU) in 1994. The goal was to "bring together copyright owner and user interests to discuss fair use issues and, if appropriate and feasible, to develop guidelines for fair uses of copyrighted works by librarians and educators" (Lehman, 1998, p.2). The resulting Multimedia Fair Use Document and other materials can be found at

Even with these guidelines for what is appropriate under fair use, many questions remain unanswered. Following review of the CONFU Guidelines, the University of Texas System prepared guidelines for practice within that University community. Their Crash Course on Copyright features a discussion of what fair use will allow and offers rules of thumb for digitizing and using images for educational purposes and for digitizing and using others’ works in multimedia materials for educational purposes. This very useful information was created (and copyrighted) by Georgia K. Harper, University of Texas System, Office of General Counsel, and can be found at

Appropriate Use

In summary, when it comes to rights and permissions, what is known for certain?

  1. Fair use provisions apply in select circumstances and provide for limited use.
  2. Materials clearly in the public domain may be used freely.
  3. It is the copyright holder who grants permissions when needed.

Recommended Course of Action

  1. Determine what is allowed: If you identify an image on the Web that you would like to use, search that Web site for a statement of the rights and permissions of that organization. Such a statement typically will advise what type of use might be allowed and how to apply for permission.

    The following is an example from the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration of a copyright and permissions statement. You will see that they provide a disclaimer that they cannot guarantee the status of an item—be it in the public domain or copyrighted--and that responsibility for appropriate use rests with the individual.

    Copyright, Restrictions, and Permissions Notice

    Generally, materials produced by Federal agencies are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission. However, not all materials appearing on this website are in the public domain. Some materials have been donated or obtained from individuals or organizations and may be subject to restrictions on use.

    You may consult our reference staff for details on specific items. We are aware of donor restrictions applicable to our collections, but we cannot confirm copyright status for any item. We recommend that you contact the United States Copyright Office at The Library of Congress to search currently copyrighted materials. Please note that because we cannot guaranty the status of specific items, you use materials found in our holdings at your own risk.

    Images on our web site which are in the public domain may be used without permission. If you use images from our web site, we ask that you credit us as the source. Please note that some images on our site have been obtained from other organizations. Permission to use these images should be obtained directly from those organizations.

    Links may be made to our web site from other personal and organizational web pages. We request that you link to our site rather than downloading portions of it to another web server, so that our viewers will see our most up-to-date information.

    Certain individuals depicted may claim rights in their likenesses and images. Use of photographs or other materials found on NARA's website may be subject to these claims. Anyone who intends to use these materials commercially should contact the individuals depicted or their representatives.




  2. Seek permission if needed.
  3. Cite the source of image, including statement of permission to use when it was required. Some organizations request that you provide a link to their site as well.

Example of unrestricted image: Description of this image stated that use was unrestricted.

Example of restricted image requiring permission to use: Statement on this site requires that formal application to use be made.

Become a nurse – Your country needs you.gif

Nurses in uniform.gif

"Become a nurse – Your country needs you"

United States Information Service. Division of Public Inquiry. Bureau of Special Services, OWI. (1941-1945).

Still Picture Branch (NWDNS), National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. (NWDNS-44-PA-135). Retrieved July 6, 2002, from search_nail.html

"Nurses in uniform"

Property of Duke University Medical Center Library, History of Medicine Collections, Durham, NC. Reprinted with permission. Retrieved July 6, 2002, from

How can I find images on the Web?

Standard search engines

Most of the standard Web search engines provide specialized functionality to allow you search for images on a given topic. Only several will be covered here.


Google purports to provide the most comprehensive image search on the Web, with over 330 million images indexed and viewable. Because it analyzes the text adjacent to the image to determine content, the results should be more relevant than from a search engine relying strictly on filename.

  • Tab at top of home page for Images
  • Link to Advanced Image Search, which also provides a Safe Search feature for filtering mature content (available only from the English language interface). Filtering choices are: none, moderate, strict. The default setting is moderate. Google allows for all search capabilities available in a text search, plus specialized options such as file types, file size ranges, coloration.
  • Sample search: health fair (exact phrase) and .edu (domain) and moderate filtering = 695 hits
  • Clicking on a thumbnail image opens up a frame with a slightly larger version of the thumbnail, the image URL, a warning that the image may be copyrighted, and a second frame with the image in its original context on the page (unless it has moved since being retrieved by Google).


  • The homepage has a link in upper right hand corner for Family Filter, which will allow you to set preferences and password protect them if you wish. The filter can be set to limit multimedia material only.
  • Tab at top of homepage for Image.
  • Link to Advanced Image Search. More limited search features than Google, but Altavista does allow for a subject search and choices for photos/graphics and color/black-white. Disclaimer is given that images may be under copyright and not available for use without permission.
  • Sample search: "health fair" with family filter on = 117 hits
  • On results page, a link in the upper right hand corner informs you if the Family Filter is on. The results are presented as thumbnails. A More Info link for each connects to further description of file size and dimensions, plus the URL for Web page containing the image. If instead you click immediately on the thumbnail, you will be linked directly to the page containing the image.


  • Pictures tab at top of homepage.
  • Advanced Search link.
  • Alltheweb provides a text search option plus choices for file format (GIF, JPG), image type, offensive content filter.
  • Sample search: "health fair" with offensive content reduction on = 640 pictures
  • The results page offers a thumbnail of images with file size and dimensions. Clicking on the thumbnail or title link takes you to a page with more information about the image, including copyright statement. This page also offers links directly to the image or to the page containing the image.

Health-Related Finding Tools for Images

Medical Images on the Web

This compilation is provided by the McGoogan Library of Medicine, University of Nebraska Medical Center. In addition to a few sites of broad interest, it offers a select list of those relating to a variety of medical specialties. Many of these sites allow free use of images for teaching and educational purposes.

MedWeb@Emory University

MedWeb, maintained by the staff of the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center Library at Emory University, indexes biomedical and health-related Web sites. Searching on "images" yields 117 sites. Coverage is as diverse as a library of realistic-looking ECG recordings for improving reading skills to stock images of biomedicine and science to medically important parasites to a Virtual ER.

Image sites of interest to health professionals

A.D.A.M. Health Illustrated Encyclopedia
(Licensed and made available through MEDLINEplus)

This highly respected encyclopedia contains over 4,000 articles about diseases, diagnostic tests, and procedures. Quality medical photographs and illustrations augment these articles. "All visuals are conceptualized, created, and reviewed by medical illustrators. All of the medical illustrators at A.D.A.M. have Master’s degrees in medical illustration or equivalent work experience. Additionally, physicians and/or anatomical PhD’s have reviewed all of the visuals for accuracy and correctness."

Copyright statement: "Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited."

Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body

"The edition of Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body features 1,247 vibrant engravings—many in color—from the classic 1918 publication, as well as a subject index with 13,000 entries ranging from the Antrum of Highmore to the Zonule of Zinn."

Terms of use: "The contents of the Service are intended for your personal, noncommercial use. You will use the Service and any content, material, or information found on the Service solely for lawful, non-commercial purposes ….The Service and its Contents are protected by copyright pursuant to U.S. and international copyright laws. You may not modify, publish, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, reproduce, create new works from, distribute, perform, display, or in any way exploit, any of the Content or the Service (including software) in whole or in part."

Images from the History of Medicine (IHM)

The IHM database contains nearly 60,000 images found in the National Library of Medicine's (NLM) historical prints and photographs collection and covers the social and historical aspects of medicine from the Middle Ages to the present.

Copyright and permissions: "The NLM does not own the copyright to the images in the database, nor do we charge access or permission fees for their use. We do request, however, that published images include the credit line ‘Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.’ Since the NLM does not own the copyright to the images, it is the responsibility of anyone using the database, or ordering reproductions based on information in it, to ensure that the use of this material is in compliance with the U. S. Copyright law (Title 17, United States Code)."

Historical Images in Medicine (Duke University)

The Duke Medical Center Library's Historical Images in Medicine (HIM) collections include "over 3,000 photographs, illustrations, engravings, and bookplates from the history of the health and life sciences."

Permissions statement: "The Web versions of the images are not publication quality, nor are they intended for such use. If you see images you would like to incorporate into your publications, please contact Suzanne Porter, History of Medicine Collections Curator, for information at (919) 660-1144."

Media/Materials Clearinghouse (Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs)

"The Media/Materials Clearinghouse (M/MC) is an international resource for health professionals who seek samples of pamphlets, posters, videos, and many other media/materials designed to promote public health." Includes "Photoshare," a searchable database of photographs for non-profit educational use.

Permissions statement: "" All images in Photoshare are intended for non-profit educational purposes. Furthermore, please note that the digital thumbnails are provided in a low-resolution format for reference only. If you would like to use any of the photos, please submit a request. Non-profit organizations working to improve quality of life in developing countries are welcome to request free digital, high-resolution copies of photos."

Medical Plant Images

Site bringing together many plant photographs, illustrations, and maps. Searchable by genus and species.

Permissions statement: none; contact Webmaster.

Public Health Image Library

"PHILTM is an extensive collection of still images, image sets, and multimedia files related to public health." Searchable by broad category or subject term.

Terms of use:

  • "Most of the images in the collection are in the public domain and are thus free of any copyright restrictions. If you look directly beneath the image you will see a fair use statement that tells if the image is public domain or copyright protected.
  • "For public domain images, permission is not required but we do ask that you credit the original institution and contributor (when known) whenever the image is used in any publicly distributed media. The name and contact information of the content provider can be found in the image information table directly below each image.
  • "If the image is copyright protected, then you will have to contact the content provider to get usage permission. PHIL does not have the authority to grant usage for any copyrighted images in the library. If you have difficulty contacting a content provider, we may be able to help, but we cannot act on their behalf."

Visible Human Project®

No discussion of health-related images on the Web would be complete without mention of this landmark effort by the National Library of Medicine. "It is the creation of complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies. Acquisition of transverse CT, MR and cryosection images of representative male and female cadavers has been completed. The male was sectioned at one millimeter intervals, the female at one-third of a millimeter intervals. The long-term goal of the Visible Human Project® is to produce a system of knowledge structures that will transparently link visual knowledge forms to symbolic knowledge formats such as the names of body parts."

"A Guided Tour of the Visible Human" is available from a project based at the University of Washington, .

Clipart Collections

There are many clipart collections on the Web. Often you have to really dig to find any kind of permissions statement, but you should do so and not assume this material is in the public domain. The statement may indicate that all the clipart is believed to be in the public domain and that if anyone finds their copyrighted images included they should contact the clipart site so that it can be removed or credited. Both of the sites below clearly address the use permitted of their clipart, as well as requesting they be credited on any Web page as the source of the images used.


This is an example of a subscription-based graphics resource. Their promotion indicates they provide access to over 1.5 million clipart images, animations, photos, fonts, and sounds. Subscription periods range from 1 week to 3 or 6 months to 1 year. There is a statement of usage guidelines (

This is a very nice site that includes health and safety clipart. The "Copyright and Use Information" clearly outlines the use that can be made of these (see


Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The images and other multimedia material on the Web can inform and entertain us. The possibilities for professional development and patient education are more impressive with each day that passes. However, we must be responsible users of what has been created by others and encourage those about us to do the same.


Barbara F. Schloman, PhD, AHIP
Assistant Dean, Library Information Services
Libraries & Media Services
Kent State University
Kent, OH 44242
Email Address:

Disclaimer: Mention of a Web site does not imply endorsement by the author, OJIN, or NursingWorld. Every effort is made to insure currency of Web links at time of publication only.


Hirtle, P. B. (1999). When works pass into the public domain in the United States: Copyright term for archivist. Retrieved July 7, 2002, from Cornell Institute for Digital Collections Web site:

Lehman, B. A. (1998). The Conference on Fair Use: Final report to the Commissioner on the conclusion of the Conference on Fair Use. Retrieved July 7, 2002, from U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site:

Merriam-Webster. (1996). Dictionary of law. Retrieved July 7, 2002, from

National Research Council. (2000). The digital dilemma: Intellectual property in the information age [Electronic version]. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved on July 19, 2002 from

Snow, M. (n.d.). Digital images and fair use Web sites. Retrieved July 7, 2002, from University of Texas System, Office of General Counsel Web site:

Talab, R. S. (1999). Commonsense copyright: A guide for educators and librarians (2nd ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Citation: Schloman, B. (August 30, 2002). Information Resources Column: "Images on the Web: Findable, Usable, but What's Legit?" Online Journal of Issues in Nursing