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Undergraduate Research in History


Copyright and Fair Use

This is a guide for Boston College's undergraduate student population in how to approach historical research.

Using Images and Other Material

Copyright law (title 17 of the United States Code) in the U.S. is supposed to protect a creator's rights to their work while also encouraging innovation. This page is designed to focus on that last part and your right to use/copy some material (images, etc.) for educational purposes under fair use law. That said, you are explicitly working in an academic environment, which means you need to cite your sources and give credit to the material you are drawing on. 

Can You Use the Image (or other Material)?

When you are working in an educational environment, you have a lot of lee-way to use material with proper attribution. That said, when you are working on a public-facing (e.g., a website) project, you will be expected to adhere to higher standards of compliance than for an internal project (e.g., a paper submitted on Canvas). To be completely use you legally use material, consider the following:

  1. Who created the material?
  2. When was the material created?
  3. What license does the material fall under?

The answers to each of those questions should give you insight into whether it's fair to use. For example, 

  1. If you or the U.S. Federal Government created the material, it's fair for you to use. If someone else created it, consider questions 2 and 3 - but also think about writing the creator for permission to use their work. Most authors/artists are delighted for people to use their work for education purposes. 
  2. In the U.S., material created before 1 January 1924 is out of copyright and you can usually use with proper citations. 
  3. There are different kinds of licenses in the U.S. (and other countries) creators can use for their material. If there is no clear statement, then the material automatically falls under standard U.S. copyright law. If, however, there is a mark like a CC (undefined, Creative Commons) or an OA (undefined, Open Access) that means it has more flexible permissions. In that case, you can use the material, but you still need to attribute your source.  

Sources for Images

Possible Additional Sources

There are other places around the web to find material that is clearly under free use. That said, with many sites you need to check individual images, etc., for their licenses. Here are some places to look that often have material you can use. Still, make sure to check.

Rights Statements

Attribution is about ascribing a work to a particular creator/writer/artist, etc. You, as a historian, should follow Chicago rules for citing to artworks and more in your notes and bibliographies. But, within a caption (under an image on a WordPress page, for example), you should also consider the following statements:

  • For licensed images for which the licensor provides a rights statement (i.e., Wikimedia Commons): Simply copy that statement and paste it into the "rights" element. For example, "©Freer Gallery of Art / Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.  Non-commercial use permitted."
  • For images of 2-dimensional, public domain artworks: "This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.  Based on recent judicial decisions, we consider faithful reproductions of two-dimensional public domain works of art to be themselves in the public domain."
  • For copyrighted images for which permission to re-use has not been obtained and for which there is no license granting re-use for our purposes: "This image is copyrighted. It is made available here under the assumption of fair use for educational purposes. The image is to be used only for teaching and study purposes at Boston College."
  • For ARTstor images: "Licensed for educational use at Boston College."
  • For public domain images: "Public Domain Image"  

Citing Photographs and Artworks using Chicago

sample artwork "The battle of Zama"For artworks, from photographs to paintings and sculpture, you should include the artist, title, date of creation/completion, and then information about the medium (what is it and how big) as well as location (such as physical Library or Archive). If you consulted the work online, include a clean URL (CMS 14.235). 

N:  7 Cort Cornelis, The Battle of Zama, 1600-1790, engraving, 43.7 x 58 cm, Library of Congress,

B: Cornelis, Cort. The Battle of Zama. 1600-1799. Engraving, 43.7 x 58 cm. Library of Congress.

Note: After the creator's name, you can include a note of what kind of artist they are (e.g., sculptor, photographer, etc.). 

Useful Videos

Fair Use from the U.S. Copyright Office on YouTube. 

Wanna Work Together? about the CC license from Creative Commons on Vimeo.

Introduction to Intellectual Property (IP) from the Crash Course Series on YouTube. 

For additional help

For additional recommendations, contact your Scholarly Communication Librarian, Elliott Hibbler, or your subject liaison, Dr. Erin Kate Scheopner.