Alex Fenlon addresses the copyright and licensing issues associated with using images for teaching. 

There is always more nuance with copyright law but to provide simple guidance- if you are using an image to support a point you are making, it is relevant to that point and it is cited- your use should be fine. 

The University subscribes to a number of image and visual resource databases which can be found on FindIt.  Their FindIt pages should contain ‘licence information’ and details about how we can use the content within the terms of the licence.  Similarly most of our e-book and e-journal licences also allow uses like this.  With Open Access growing continuously, more and more content is available online under open licences such as Creative Commons.  When using content under licences like these, the info in the video and below doesn’t apply and we need to follow the licence terms to ensure our uses is acceptable.

Where we don’t have a licence, copyright law contains a number of exceptions that allows the use of other people’s work in a particular set of circumstances.  Importantly for us, these exceptions include teaching or, to give it its name in the law, ‘illustration for instruction’.  The exception says:

“Fair dealing with a work for the sole purpose of illustration for instruction does not infringe copyright in the work provided that the dealing is—
(a) for a non-commercial purpose,
(b) by a person giving or receiving instruction (or preparing for giving or receiving instruction), and
(c) accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement (unless this would be impossible for reasons of practicality or otherwise).”
(s.32[1] Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, as amended.)

We interpret this exception to mean that teaching staff and students can use images during a lecture/seminar/course/ module/programme of study provided that the content demonstrates, communicates, or illustrates a point they are making AND it is referenced.  As you can see the exception isn’t limited to particular type of teaching sessions so it applied equally to use in a traditional lecture, use in handouts, slides uploaded to Canvas, content added directly to Canvas, content captured by lecture capture tech, and also the use by the student in their studies.  It also applies to all types of content too.

(NB- If you teach a CPD–type course or a MOOC this may not apply as such courses may be deemed to be commercial in nature.)

When the exception talks about a ‘fair dealing’ it means any use of content that a reasonable person would consider fair. Unfortunately with concepts like ‘fairness’, there is no hard and fast rule to determine what that actually means and it will vary in each and every case.  In order to determine whether a particular use is fair or not we must assess:

  • the quantity and quality of the source used,
  • if the use would prevent a sale of the source,
  • how relevant/ necessary your use of the content is, and
  • if there is a reference present that identifies the author/ owner and the title of the work used.

All of these factors must be balanced but we interpret this to mean - if you copy a small amount that is vital to support your teaching, which wouldn’t prevent someone buying the source, and it is referenced, this is probably fine. 

Applying this to images raises some problems as, if the exception only allows the use of small parts, how can we re-use a full image?  The suggested practice here is that low resolution images are unlikely to compete with or take any sales away from the hi-res versions and so may be considered fair- the quantity element is off-set by the probable lack of commercial damage.

Every case is different but if the amount copied is necessary, reasonable and appropriate to your teaching, your use won’t prevent a sale of the image, and you have referenced it - it is likely that using a full image can be considered a ‘fair dealing’ within a teaching context. 

To offer a reassurance, although this seems difficult, colleagues make these decisions every day:

  • We only use material that is relevant to the topics we are teaching. 
  • We only use an amount that is needed to support the points we are making,
  • We don’t publish and sell teaching materials that take away commercial opportunities from owners, and
  • We all know what using other people’s work without a citation is called in academia- plagiarism, so we always reference the work of others. 

Provided we keep making these judgements, we will continue to be able to use image content within our teaching sessions.

Further detail is available via or please contact with your query.

Further Reading