A Simple Guide To Free Images, Copyright, And Creative Commons For Students And Teachers

Girl holding camera taking photo

This post was first published in 2017. It was updated October 27, 2018.

Students’ classwork is becoming increasingly digital. Whether creating a slideshow, blog post, presentation, or document, images are always needed. Teachers also regularly need images for class blog posts, assignments, presentations, course work etc.

This guide walks you through the process of easily and ethically finding quality images for classroom use.

Want a free eBook to learn the basics of copyright, Creative Commons and finding free images? Just enter your email address here and I’ll send it to you. It’s an extension of the information in this post plus a number of printable posters you can use in your classroom.

Where Do Students And Teachers Find Images?

There are five main choices for teachers and students looking for images. Let’s go over the choices (spoiler alert: number 5 is the easiest option!)…

1) Do they create their own images?

This is a safe option. Students and teachers can take their own photographs and/or create images with online tools like BeFunky, Canva, Piktochart, Adobe Spark etc.

The downsides are:

  • They might need an image of something they can’t photograph or create
  • The image creation process can be time-consuming and take away from the actual point of the assignment
  • Some online tools are 13+

2) Do they purchase images?

We know purchasing stock photography isn’t really an option for students and schools BUT it’s still important to talk about.

We pay a hairdresser when we get a haircut, pay a baker for a loaf of bread, so why not pay a photographer for their work? Many businesses pay for stock photos when they need images for their documents, websites, and other work.

This is worth students and teachers being aware of.

3) Do they use Google Images?

From my experience, many students learn how to search and download Google Images early in their schooling. They might pick up this skill themselves or learn it from friends, teachers, or parents. Unfortunately, this is also often the default option teachers fall back on.

While this is a quick way to find the image you desire, it’s generally not a good option to rely on Google Images.

Although you can do an advanced search to find Creative Commons images, most images in your standard Google search are protected by copyright.

Even if you cite the source of the image, you are not allowed to use images that are protected by copyright. This is called copyright infringement; it is illegal and unethical.

4) Do they use Creative Commons Images?

5+ years ago I was teaching my student bloggers (aged 7-10) how to source and attribute Creative Commons images for their blog posts and online work.  I created a handout to guide students through this process.

This was a worthwhile task, yet it required a certain investment in time to develop the students’ understandings.

There are a number of Creative Commons licenses to understand, not to mention the concepts of locating, saving, and attributing images. Again, going through this process repeatedly can take away from the actual learning intentions for your lesson.

Tip: Not sure what the difference between copyright and Creative Commons is?

  • Copyright means the person who took the photo (or created the work) does not allow anyone to use it. Everything that’s published online is protected by copyright by default.
  • Creative Commons means the person who took the photo (or created the work) does allow people to use it IF they agree to certain terms, called licenses. Read more about Creative Commons Licenses.

Learn more about copyright and Creative Commons in simple terms in my free eBook.

5) A Solution: Copyright Free Images

Fortunately, over the past few years, there has been a rise in the availability of free images that are licensed under public domain or Creative Commons Zero (CC0). This is the easiest way to find images for your work. 

  • Public domain works can be used freely for any purpose. Their licenses have expired, or they are released with no restriction on their usage.
  • CC0 is a Creative Commons license that allows copyright owners to release their works with no usage restrictions.

Some of these sites with CC0/public domain images can be very useful in the classroom, however, they’re not all created equal.

Some copyright free image sites:

  • Include some inappropriate content
  • Have age restrictions
  • Have confusing advertising for other websites with paid stock images

All these obstacles can lead back to an ineffective workflow and present obstacles to digital fluency. Let’s break down the best sites so you can decide what will suit you and your students.

Six Useful Options For Copyright Free Images

I have curated six useful sites where students and/or educators can search for free images to use without restriction.

Scroll down to see a table that compares the features of all six resources.

1) Unsplash

This popular website has a large range of excellent quality images, regularly donated by photographers worldwide.

Birds eye view of beach

Images can be used freely for any purpose without permission or attribution.

The user experience is excellent. The Unsplash website is easy to search and browse. The advertisements are minimal/unobtrusive.

There is the option of signing up to join the Unsplash community where you can organise image collections and even submit photos yourself. However, you don’t have to register to download photos.

There is an app available for iOS and a Google Slides Add-on. 

Users are required to be 13 +.

2) Pixabay

This is another excellent site. It is similar to Unsplash in that:

  • High quality images are donated by photographers
  • Sign up is optional
  • Images can be used freely without attribution
  • It’s easy to search and navigate

Unlike Unsplash, Pixabay also includes free videos, illustrations, and vector graphics. Another benefit is the availability of a free app. iOS | Android

Photo of an old bike seat

A minor interruption to the workflow is that a Captcha image needs to be typed in before downloading and image, unless you’re a registered user.

When you’re on the download page some suggested similar images show up from paid stock photo sites. Students would need to be made aware of this so they understand they are not free photos (this could be a worthwhile teaching point: how to distinguish between free resources and paid advertisements).

Pixabay does have a SafeSearch option which would certainly be a good option if used properly.

Another handy feature is the addition of a Microsoft Office plug-in to grab images for Word and PowerPoint without leaving your document.

Users are required to be 16+.

3) Pexels

Images on Pexels are either sourced from other photo sharing websites, or uploaded by users.

Picture of a beautiful peacock

Photos can be used freely without attribution. Additionally, there is a free video page, and an app.

This site also has the option to sign up but it’s not a requirement.

Like Pixabay, there is some suggested content from paid stock photo sites.

This service is for users aged 13+.

4) Photos For Class

Photos For Class is a good option for younger students. The terms of service state that children under 13 can use Photos for Class under the supervision of a parent, guardian, or teacher.

The other advantage of Photos For Class is the images are apparently filtered and age-appropriate. They come from Flickr and Pixabay.

Unlike the three above options, the images require attribution, however, this information is automatically included when you download an image. The attribution appears as a caption below the image. See the example below — the attribution information does appear blurry in a smaller sized image.

Elephant image from Photos For Class

Another handy feature of Photos for Class is that you can embed a search bar on your class blog or school website like the one below.

5) Openclipart

Clip art and vectors can be useful for students’ creations. Rather than just an attractive image, their work might require a map, sign, icon, or flag etc.

Openclipart provides hundreds of thousands of images that can be used freely without attribution.

I couldn’t find information about age restrictions on the site, but an email confirmed that this site can be used by students under 13 (it doesn’t seem to be totally filtered so I’d recommend supervision).

While Openclipart doesn’t present the most modern interface, it’s easy enough to search for images.

There is advertising for paid services on this site which would need to be pointed out to students.

Openclipart includes a tool where students can edit clipart. They might enjoy playing around with this feature as you don’t need to be signed in to use it.

Images can be downloaded, or you can use the HTML code to embed the clipart like I’ve done here.

6) Pics4Learning

I added Pics4Learning to my list as a late 2018 addition.

I didn’t add it originally because I found the images a little restrictive and amateurish, however, some teachers have mentioned they find it useful. It’s probably an easy option if you teach students under 13.

Pics4Learning actually contains “copyright-friendly” images meaning the creator maintains the rights to the image but allows teachers and students to use them. The images can only be used for educational purposes and not commercially.

Comparisons

I have created the following table to easily compare the six tools mentioned so you can decide what best meets your needs and your students’ needs.

Comparison table showing the features of free photo sites for teachers and students Kathleen Morris

Discussion Points

There are a number of issues that can be discussed in the classroom around the topic of Creative Commons and free images.

  • Should photographers and artists give away their work for free? Why are artists and musicians more likely to be asked to give away work for free than professionals in other industries?
  • Why do photographers give away their work to copyright free sites like Unsplash and Pixabay? What are the benefits for them?
  • Who is hurt by copyright infringement?
  • Some free sites have the option to either donate to the artist financially, or publicise their work through voluntarily giving credit or sharing to social media. Should we always attribute, even if it’s not required?

To encourage a discussion on attribution and Creative Commons with younger students, check out this post and video by Linda Yollis and her third grade students. You might like to try the experiment they conducted yourself.

Safety Concerns

All of the sites I’ve reviewed, apart from Photos for Class and Pics4Learning, are not designed for children. Not surprisingly, some inappropriate content can be found on these sites when you search for it (especially Pixabay and Pexels it seems, although Pixabay does have a SafeSearch option).

While I don’t think this is a reason to ban these sites for older students, it’s certainly something to be aware of. Using these resources would just provide an avenue for discussing appropriate online behaviours in an authentic way.

Printables

To make life easier in your classrom, I have created some free printables which I can email to you. You’ll be able to print them off as handouts, embed them on your blog, or display them as posters.

1. Task Card for Students Under 13

This document walks your younger students step-by-step through the process of finding and downloading an image on Photos for Class and Openclipart.

Remember, younger students could try Pics4Learning too but it’s not the most comprehensive site.

2. Poster for Older Students and Teachers

This document references the five sites that are most useful for teachers and older students.

3. Summary of Options For Finding Images

This poster reminds students of the 5 main ways they can find images for their digital work.

Digital Fluencies

Most students and teachers regularly need images to enhance their digital work. I believe a clear and simple workflow is required for this process.

The skill of legally and efficiently obtaining images is something students need to be fluent in, otherwise, time and focus can be taken away from learning goals.

If students or teachers see the process as too arduous, they often default back to using a picture from Google Images. Not a good idea.

A little time invested in getting used to sourcing free images can really pay off!

Final Thoughts

To gain more of an understanding of Creative Commons and copyright beyond images, check out this post by Sue Waters and Ronnie Burt.

It’s important to note that I still think it’s a worthwhile skill to teach students about the full range of Creative Commons licenses and attribution, however, sometimes a shortcut is needed to save time and improve workflows. Public domain, royalty free, and Creative Commons Zero images are a better shortcut than using an image that’s protected by copyright.

How do you or your students find images for your work?

Do you know of any other useful websites?

Please leave a comment and share any tips!

Need images for your digital work but not sure where to find them? Learn how to easily and ethically find quality images for students and teachers. You might also be interested in my eBook which clearly explains copyright, Creative Commons, and free images. It includes posters for the primary and secondary classroom.
Need images for your digital work but not sure where to find them? Learn how to easily and ethically find quality images for students and teachers. You might also be interested in my eBook which clearly explains copyright, Creative Commons, and free images. It includes posters for the primary and secondary classroom. Kathleen Morris

Leave a Reply