Finding great scicomm & presentation images for free (Using Images-A Best Practices Primer, Part 2)

This article is the second in a series aimed at helping you enhance your #scicomm and #sciart by avoiding #visualplagiarism. It will do so by laying out some best practices for dealing with images (which are, by their nature) visual intellectual property protected by copyrights.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, and no part of this article or series should be construed as legal advice. 

Please chime in, in the comments or by contacting me, if you have suggestions for how to enhance this article or the series.

The internet is full of great images you can ethically and legally use for free, like these ofHedy Lamarr (co-developer of frequency hopping, the forerunner of the internet) and one of her patent figures. (Source: public domain images from Wikimedia Commons & Google Patents.)


In the first article in this series, we looked at essential definitions at play when using images. We also ran through a series of tips, including how to approach someone about asking permission to reproduce their image, the constraints of U.S. Fair Use laws, and more.

In this article, we’ll focus on how to find great images to use in your SciComm, whether that is a conference talk or poster, a lecture in the class you teach, an outreach project, or something else.

There are several ways to access free high-quality images. The following are recommended:A: PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGES

“The public domain is not a place,” notes the U.S. Copyright Office in its list of definitions. Rather, “A work of authorship is in the ‘public domain’ if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner.”

Public Domain images are the only “free” images on the internet, and even this recommendation is accompanied by the caveat that public domain laws vary by country. Be sure to follow the laws of the country where you are (both where you work and where you may do a presentation or something else using images).

Sources of public domain images in the U.S. include:

1. Many generous professionals provide some of their images for free public use. Have a look online – depending on your field, you may have lots too choose from, such as the exceptional insect photographs Alex Wild has released into the public domain

2. A lot of online databases provide easy access to public domain images, including predictable ones such as Wikipedia and many museums. Click the images to access; both are hyperlinked.



3. A great source of public domain images that is less well-known, however, is the U.S. government. Nearly all images created by the government are automatically in the public domain, as the hyperlinked image below explains.


That includes images from the Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation, along with the following and many other government sources. Click on the images to access; all are hyperlinked.








A caveat re public domain and model releases:

A critical consideration when using public domain images is who and what is in the picture. The picture itself may be free to use, because the photographer or commissioning entity has released it into public domain or the copyrights have expired.

However, people and property depicted within the photograph are another matter. As explained by this FStoppers article about the difference between public domain and stock images, property and model releases don’t usually come with public domain images. And, that has gotten a few image users into costly legal trouble.

Among the many ways to do your due diligence before using any image, tracking down the photographer and double-checking the circumstances of the image are a good idea.


If you cannot find the image(s) you are looking for in the public domain, look for images available under Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons licensing is a complicated but useful system developed to enable image creators (and other intellectual property creators) to indicate that they are sharing some of their rights, or offering their work for use in specific situations.

Example: Depending on the type of license issued within the Creative Commons framework, you might find an image that is licensed with the following three constraints: a) non-commercial, b) non-derivative work, or c) with attribution.

This means you could use this image for an educational or academic talk, so long as a) you do not try to make money from the image, b) you do not change the image in any way, and c) you provide clear attribution (the creator’s name and website, etc., as relevant).

Because Creative Commons licensing is nuanced and provides a wide range of licensing options (not just the example above), it is important to pay attention to the specific license a creator has granted for the specific image you wish to use.

Creative Commons makes this really easy, by providing an in-house search function you can tailor to find images provided for reproduction based on your intended uses.

And if you’re confused about the difference between Creative Commons and other licensing/rights situations, Creative Commons breaks it down like this:


Google, Flickr, and a great many other search engines and photo-sharing platforms are well aware of the importance of licensing and attribution. They provide advanced search options that enable you to specify you want to see results only of images that are “creative commons,” “public domain,” and so on.

Often, selecting the appropriate options drastically reduces the number (and sometimes the quality) of images you have to choose from. If none of these images suit your needs, and you can’t or don’t want to create/commission custom images, you still have a powerful option.


As mentioned in the previous article in this series, connecting directly with the image creator is a great idea.

In addition to hopefully receiving permission to use an image, you will make a connection with someone who could be an on-going collaborator. Equally importantly, you will demonstrate that you care enough about intellectual property rights and ethical image use to ask for permission.

Receiving such requests before an image has been used is something image creators celebrate. So, please, help us celebrate!

In the next article in this series, Finding the Creator, we’ll look at a few ways to find the creator of an image you want to use, discuss how to approach them, and more.

Many thanks to Stephen B. Heard, whose insightful comments on an earlier draft ensured this version was more reader-friendly. Thanks, also, to Paige Jarreau, Glendon Mellow, Kirk Englehardt, Jonny Armstrong, and others who chimed in during the initial Twitter conversations that inspired this article.

4 Replies to “Finding great scicomm & presentation images for free (Using Images-A Best Practices Primer, Part 2)”

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