hero photo of someone holding an image in front of a light box

It’s tricky to find appropriate, usable images for e-learning projects. And sometimes after you’ve found the right photo, it’s unclear whether you can legally use it.

Images are protected by copyright. So you can’t add any photo you find online to your e-learning project. But trying to do the right thing can raise more questions than answers: What if I just link to their website? Should I reach out to this person? Wait, I don’t see who owns this image!

Usually images you’ll find on photo sites fall into one of a few categories. Here are some of the different usage terms you’ll find.


Copyright law protects original works, including images. In most cases, you can’t copy or distribute a copyrighted image without permission from the person who created it. You should assume that any image you find online is protected by copyright. If possible, contact the copyright holder for permission to use their work.

When you buy a stock photo, you’re buying the right to use that copyrighted image. Depending on which site you use, the image may be royalty-free or rights-managed. Royalty-free means that you’re not responsible for royalty payments. You’re usually able to use the image as you’d like. Rights-managed means there are restrictions on how you can use the image—so be sure to read your license agreement closely!

Fair Use

The fair use doctrine provides opportunities for using copyrighted images without permission. For instance, you can legally use a copyrighted image for personal and educational use, or for the public good. Most e-learning is commercial. As a course creator, you should assume that using copyrighted images in your work doesn’t qualify as fair use.

But fair use also allows you to transform copyrighted images into something new. If you turn a copyrighted image into a completely new work, you can use that image freely.

Creative Commons

The Creative Commons non-profit provides free copyright licenses for creators. The copyright holder can determine several things with these licenses:

  • Whether you need to credit them for their image
  • Whether you can use their image for commercial purposes
  • Whether you can modify their image
  • What license you must use if you modify their image

When using Creative Commons images, be sure to read the license carefully and use the image appropriately.

Pro tip: Some photo sharing sites, such as Flickr, allow you to filter search results by specific Creative Commons licenses.

Public Domain

Typically an image becomes part of the public domain in one of two ways. The creator either gives up copyright willingly, or the copyright expires. These images aren’t protected by copyright, so you’re free to use them any way you’d like.

Pro tip: WikiMedia Commons has a large database of images in the public domain.

A Helpful Alternative

Of course, the easiest way to source freely available images is by finding e-learning solutions that provide stock assets. Articulate 360 includes Content Library 360, an ever-growing library of visual assets that you can access right from within Rise and Storyline 360. The stock photos, images, icons, videos, course slides, and characters in Content Library 360 are 100 percent royalty- and attribution-free, so you can use them in your e-learning however you’d like.

See what’s available in Content Library 360 when you start a free, 30-day trial of Articulate 360. You’ll also get access to award-winning authoring apps Storyline 360 and Rise, a project review app, and access to live online training led by industry experts.

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Paul Kizilos
Paul Kizilos
Keith Shull
Keith Shull
Greg Younger
Karen Wakefield
R. Diane Schmallegger
Lynn Stettler