August 18, 2014

I decided to write this post because I work with a lot of students and practicing herbalists/nutritionists who are unclear on the basic guidelines for using images in presentations. I've seen MANY presentations at conferences and in class that pretty clearly violate copyright law. I know that it's almost always unintentional, so I wanted to share some tips for avoiding problems :). Please understand that I am not a lawyer and that this is a complicated subject. Do your own research when in doubt.

Imagine that your future self is getting ready for a presentation and you begin to wonder, "How can I fancy up my slides?"

Before you look for images...

First, ask yourself if you really need slides. Despite what you may have been lead to believe, you do not necessarily need slides to give a presentation.

Do you need slides, or do you need note cards? If you need something to read &/or to keep you on track as you talk, just make note cards and skip the slides. Spare your audience the tedium of having slides read aloud to them. If your presentation needs visuals for a specific reason, then forge ahead.

What is an image?

This seems kind of ridiculous to ask, and you'd be surprised at the confusion out there. I'm not just talking about photographs, but also tables, graphs, cartoons, drawings and any other type of artwork. The rules below apply to all of these.

Google is not your friend

So you're giving a presentation on the digestive system and want to find an image of the esophagus and stomach. A quick Google image search reveals hundreds of possibilities. You could easily grab one and paste it into your slide, right?


I'm surprised at how many students I run across who believe that all images on the web are automatically in the public domain. It's true that they are easy to grab and use, but almost all of these images are under copyright protection.

It is illegal to copy & paste, download or otherwise use most images on the web in your presentation, even if you link back to the page where you found the image.

Why you should care about copyright and images in your presentation

Let's say you take a picture of your new baby and put it up on a blog for your family to see. How might you feel if someone came along and used that image to advertise diaper disposal bags? Or used the picture of your child on their photography website?

It’s your image, and just by putting it up online you are not giving permission for anyone to use that image for any purpose. If you came across the image elsewhere on the web – or in print – you would have the right to demand that the person remove or take down the image.

Images - whether photographs, tables, cartoons, or some other category - are the result of someone's hard work. Someone took that photograph, created the table or drew the diagram. That person may or may not want the image used elsewhere. It's unethical and illegal to use the image without permission.

Images you can use for presentations

There are three types of images you can use in your presentations:

  1. Images that you created. If you took the photo or created the graph yourself, then you're usually good to go! Two important caveats here: 1) Adding something to someone else's photo or image does not count. So if you take someone else's lovely photograph and add an inspirational quote to it, that's not okay. It's considered a "derivative work" and you would need to have permission to use the photo in that way first. 2) If there are identifiable people in your picture, you need to get their consent (a "model release") before publishing the image, and photographs of certain buildings (Sydney opera house) or events (light show at the Eiffel tower) are also protected by copyright law.
  2. Images that are not under copyright. This includes images published before 1923 and images that have specifically
    no copyright symbol
    been released into the public domain by their authors. Examples of this are the botanical illustrations from Kohler's Medicinal Plants found on Wikipedia and most images created by the US federal government like this one of the uterus and ovaries. You can use these images however you like, and although it is always nice to cite the source you are not legally required to do so in this case. If you see the "c" with a line through it as illustrated here, you're all set.
  3. Images that are licensed for the relevant use. In our case, this will almost always be one of the creative commons licenses, although see here for more detail about other licenses. Authors of these images have specifically given permission for others to use them in particular ways. Some licenses allow derivative images, some do not. Some allow commercial use, others do not. Some require you to specifically ask for permission to use the image or to notify the creator when you do use the image. Virtually all require that you cite/give credit to the author in a particular way that allows others to find the author's work.

How to find images for your presentations

If you don't have your own image then you'll need to search for one that works. If you'd like to use a table or graph from a research paper, try contacting the corresponding author. In my experience, most are more than happy to grant permission as long as you agree to properly cite the work.

Hooray for corresponding authors who write back!

If you just need a generic image, here are my favorites:

A word to the wise

If your slides will be published in any way, especially in ways that allow the viewer to reproduce them (i.e. to download, copy and/or print them), you need to take extra special care to cite properly and stick with images that are licensed for your use or out of copyright. When you publish images without attribution or otherwise violate copyright this is a particularly big deal. And when you make copies - or allow others to make copies - of these images, it's an even bigger deal.

What do I mean by "published"? Here are some examples:

  • posting your slides on a conference website (even if for attendees only)
  • posting your slides on SlideShare or a similar site
  • posting your slides on a course website
  • printing your slides in a conference proceedings


What about educational use?

The rules above generally apply even if you are using images for educational purposes. This is a bit trickier and the rules are not as black & white. If you work for a nonprofit educational institution, you'll need to read up on some of the special exceptions. Some people get confused because "fair use" allows educators to use a small portion of copyrighted works (with attribution!). However, "fair use" takes into account whether you are nonprofit or commercial and how much of the copyrighted work you will be using. Since an image is typically a "work" in and of itself, and since most of us want to use the whole image v. just 10% of it, this is tricky. Unless you want to read up on all of this, then you probably need to stick to images that are licensed for use or in the public domain. It is generally easier to argue for displaying an image for educational use if you don't give the students or participants a way to save or copy the image (a big no-no).

Extra hint: images from a textbook are (usually) NOT in the public domain. Even if you purchased the textbook, you do not necessarily have permission to use those images in your presentation.

Who's going to know?

It's true. In many cases no one will know if you use an image illegally in a live presentation. Do you only do the right thing when someone's watching? I hope not 🙂

What if I don't have room on my slides to cite the images?

It is generally considered acceptable to include a "citations" slide at the end of your presentation with references/links to the images used. Be sure to indicate which image goes with with citation.

Got any other tips? Favorite image sources? Feel free to share below.

About Camille Freeman, LDN, RH (she/her)

Hi there! I'm a clinical herbalist and licensed nutritionist specializing in fertility and menstrual health. I run the Monday Mentoring community of practice and also offer continuing education programs for highly-trained herbalists and nutritionists (Check out this year's Deep Dive!). I'm also a professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, where I teach physiology, pathophysiology, and mindful eating.

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