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Research guide for students taking anthropology courses.

Ethical Use of Images

Images are a wonderful source of information and can add a lot to your thesis. However, you must use them responsibly and be aware of copyright considerations and ethical use practices. Guidelines for image use often vary depending on where you found the image and who owns the copyright.


Most databases and many websites provide guidelines for how their images may be used. Look for these guidelines in the about section. Here are two examples of what these pages often look like:

About Reed Digital Collections

About Columbia University - Copyright & Permissions for Online Exhibitions & Digital Collections

What exactly is copyright?

The U.S. Copyright Office defines it as "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."

UW Copyright Connection - Images of Art and People provides details on issues you should consider when using images of art or people.

How can I tell if something is protected under copyright?

Sometimes a copyright notice is placed on the image to inform you that it has been copyrighted. A copyright notice typically looks like this: ©2008 John Doe. © indicates it is under copyright; 2008 was the year of first publication; and John Doe is the name of the copyright owner. If you see this notice, you know the image has been copyrighted. However, the use of a copyright notice is optional. Something may be protected by copyright even if the notice is not displayed.

What is the public domain?

A work that is no longer under copyright protection or that did not meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of a copyright owner.

Isn't all of the work I do as a student at Reed protected under Fair Use anyway?

Not necessarily. Four factors are used to determine if use is fair. Educational use is one of the four factors, but the other three must also be considered. The four factors are:

Ethical Use

In addition to legalities, you should also strive to use images ethically. This means you should be careful to represent people and situations accurately while also considering personal privacy and reputation. When editing photos and adding them to your thesis, do not alter the meaning, content, or context of the images.

Many aid and social justice organizations have policies around the ethical use of images when working with or doing research with or about communities. These can be helpful to look at to get a sense of the importance of how to ethically, fairly, and appropriately represent individuals and communities. Some examples:

The discipline of anthropology has explored issues around ethical use of images and videos in depth. These sites and documents provide a window into these discussions:

Further Reading