I need to add some images to my thesis. I would strongly prefer that these are free (no cost) and not restricted by copyright. I have used Google Image to find images, I don't know how to determine what the copyright restrictions are, or what license types apply. I will not use them in any published paper, just for my unpublished thesis.


P.S. Here are the search options for Google Image:

Google images usage rights

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    Depends on the license terms under which your thesis will be distributed and the laws of the country in which you're writing it.
    – David Z
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 7:32
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    The easiest solution (if you had a budget for it) would be to commission an artist.
    – emory
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:11
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    In addition to the helpful answers below, and the mention of Flickr, there are websites which specialise in copyright-free images. For example, I use Pixabay frequently - all the images there are under Creative Commons. You may be able to use Google to find a similar website which provides the pictures you want.
    – Luna
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 10:17
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    @phresnel For my thesis, I had to inquire about the copyright for one single image; so this is not really something that comes up often. Degrees tell only a small fraction about overall ability, indeed. For example, I am not great at knitting. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 14:01
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    Could you tell me why does your thesis need generic images (i.e. ones which can be found on the Internet, whether free or not)? Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 13:37

10 Answers 10


You can't rely on the options for Google Image search. Instead, you will have to do additional research for each of the images you find and intend to use.

First, you need to find the original author/creator of that image. It may or may not be the same as the owner/creator of the web site where you find the image. (They may have copied the image from somewhere else, with or without permission.) You can use Google Image search "search by image" option to find other copies of that same image on other sites.

Second, you need to find the copyright statement for that image on the site of the owner. In many cases, you'll find a copyright statement as part of the "Terms of Service" for the whole web site. In other cases, there will be a copyright statement for each and every image.

Third, when in doubt, you need to contact the author/owner and ask for permission to use the image.

If all this seems cumbersome and so non-digital, be aware that copyright law (and intellectual property rights law in general) still lives in the pre-digital age. Lawyers still send faxes to each other and to the courts. Think about that.

  • Thanks @MrMeritology. From your comment I can assume that Google Image filters are totally useless. The idea was to use some images from others in order to save some time. If there is no straightforward way to find free scientific images, I might skip images in thesis. Only text in the introduction and discussion. For me is OK, lets see for the committee.
    – biotech
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 9:54
  • @biotech yes, google filters are completely useless. And also, you may have to cite the image author in your sources, depending on where you are. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:26
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    What is this thing you call "fax"...? (just kidding, but that is pretty ridiculous)
    – user541686
    Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 10:03

This depends highly on your countries laws and regulations.

For example: The German copyright laws has some limitations for the use of works in the area of teaching and research.

With the CC licenses you risk less mistakes. But you have to take care of the correct distribution.

  • name the author and source if the license contains BY.
  • don't change the file and only use it in the original composition when license contains ND (no derivate).
  • don't use media with licenses containing NC (not commercial) in a thesis or paper that contributes to (pending) patents. That could be interpreted to be a commercial use.
  • [changed:] according to the (IANAL-)comments one can use SA (share alike) licensed material without putting your thesis under the same license

In any case, pages that give information about the media-license are good sources, because you mostly have a clear licensing statement for any file. So you can easily decide whether and how to use it. I doubt that an author will change the license later on. You could use a web preservation repository service like WebCite to create evidence that the file had a specific license when you found and decided to use it.

Suggestions for search:

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    "be aware to put your thesis under the same license as the used media if their licenses contain SA (share alike)" - I wonder whether this is accurate. Just like a software package can contain single files whose license deviates from the license of the rest of the files in the package, can't a thesis document be subject to license X, with the exception of some graphics depicted in the thesis that are (both originally, and still in the thesis) subject to license Y? Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 8:47
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    @O. R. Mapper: That's a good point. The sentence I wrote is my understanding of the share alike (SA) property. Maybe someone else can provide a more detailed view on SA property as a comment. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 8:51
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    In particular, I could create a graphic on my own, include it in my thesis and declare that particular graphic to be licensed as CC-BY-SA, even though the entirety of my thesis is not. That sounds like it should work, as otherwise, non-CC-BY-SA-licensed "works" (books, websites, ...) could never publish CC-BY-SA-licensed graphics, which probably isn't the case (?) But if that is possible, it sounds reasonable to assume that CC-BY-SA-works that I took from elsewhere could just as well be integrated (and republished as CC-BY-SA) in non-CC-BY-SA-works. IANAL. Maybe warrants a new question. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 8:54
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    Case in point: Websites such as Wikimedia Commons could never contain both images subject to the CC-BY-SA license and images subject to the CC-BY-NC-SA license at the same time. (Not to mention other share-alike-licenses with more incompatible other terms.) Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 8:58
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    Yes, you can use a CC-BY-SA image in eg. a book without it having to be CC-BY-SA itself. The bigger work is what is called an aggregation. Note that for instance Creative Commons considers that you can use sharealike images in a document without infecting the document. The FSF thinks the document would need to be under such license. Other people consider that in both cases you can include the images. And of course, for legal advice you should consult your lawyer about the specific license, IANAL.
    – Ángel
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 13:07

I'm a strong supporter of Wikipedia and her sister projects. One of those projects is exactly what you're looking for. The Wikimedia Commons is a database of 26,536,356+ freely usable media files to which anyone can contribute. There are millions of images (not just photographs) and thousands added each day. You can view all the licensing for every media file, although that might not be entirely necessary considering all of them are free to use.

  • I was going to suggest the same. Wikimedia Commons is awesome.
    – Miguel
    Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 16:34

Flickr makes it very easy to find images that have a "free" license in the sense explained in Andrés answer. These also include beautiful images from public archives, such as the British Library. In contrast to a google image search (see MrMeritology's answer), the author and copyright information on Flickr are reliable. However, one caveat is that the author might change the license and you have no way to prove that the work was "free" when you first used it.

If you are confused whether or not you can reuse a copyrighted image, this flowchart might help.


I wanted a very specific image for my dissertation, and found a simple solution - I drew it myself, and scanned the result. Since I created it, the copyright status was exactly the same as the words I was writing. It did not need any acknowledgement or reference. It cost me a few dollars for materials, and about an hour of my time.

  • Are you kidding? The images I need are from the papers I cite in the introduction.
    – biotech
    Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 17:28
  • No, I'm not kidding. Whether draw-it-yourself works for a specific image depends on the situation. If you need images from existing papers, I don't see any alternative to contacting the copyright holders of those papers to request permission to use those images. Commented Jul 6, 2015 at 18:17

There are a number of sites where you can download images. For certain sites, attribution isn't required (but usually appreciated). For example:

Flickr (https://www.flickr.com) also offers a great database of free images. You can use the search tool and then filter by copyright types:

  • Images under "Commercial use & mods allowed" are free but attribution is required. This means you'll have to link to their author and to the License page. if you've modified the image, you also have to specify it
  • Images under "No known copyright restrictions" are in the public domain or universal commons (CC0 1.0 Universal) and no attribution is required.

In order to use images in your thesis you need to know who made them so that you can properly credit them, regardless of the issue of copyright. Proper accreditation is probably a more significant issue for your thesis than complying with copyright laws since failure to properly credit images including in your thesis is plagarism.

Since you will need to identify the original creator of each piece anyway, I would suggest you rely much more on what you learn through this route than anything Google tells you.


I think, if you guide yourself by the creative commons it could get easier but Im not aware of how your contry takes this online practices so you might want to check that

This is an article that helped me a lot some weeks ago with free photos and images ready to be used, some shared under the creative commons other freely shared by their owners



There are a few sites which allows you to use images copyright free. Just note that you cannot re-sell those images.

Follow this


Another royalty free stock image site is: http://www.sxc.hu/

I would also suggest take pictures of your own. You can pose for yourself or ask family or friend.

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    I'm not sure OP would be interested in the "pose for yourself" option you mentioned; can you elaborate on how that helps them?
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 21:55
  • Pose for yourself if a model is required. Your thesis will look much more credible if the pictures are also created by you. Commented Jul 2, 2015 at 23:17
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    «royalty free» is not what the OP meant. also, this section of the legal information section looks fishy: «Freeimages cannot be held responsible for any copyright violations, and cannot guarantee the legality of the Images stored in its system. If you want to make sure, always contact the photographers.» Commented Jul 3, 2015 at 9:03

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