Stock Photography Guidelines for Students and Universities – An Ultimate Guide

With virtually everybody having access to Google's endless image search results, and with the current spread of visual resources across multiple purposes, it's more important than ever for students to understand the copyright rules that apply to the images they intend to use for school projects. editor

This is more relevant than ever in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted most educational institutions to online platforms and e-learning. creative cloud

This world of seemingly free images can quickly turn murky for college students who don’t understand copyright and no copyright, fair use, and licensing of images. You might not know it, but using a photo –or any piece of content you did not create yourself– in your project without the proper license and permission from the owner can cost you, and even your university, a good amount of legal trouble.

That's why it's so important for you to understand how image copyright works. To help you achieve this, we have compiled a comprehensive list of the top things college students need to know about using stock photos and images –including vectors, illustrations, videos, and any other media files for academic purposes.

Our goal here is not to scare you from using images you found on the internet for a project or paper, but rather to answer the FAQ to help you better understand copyright restrictions and fair use, and give you information on affordable stock photo options that are available to you with special discounts. 

If you are especially interested in a manual about the legal and ethical correct use of stock photos, our brand new guide to rules for using stock photos might be a great help for you.

If you're after photos with a student theme, then look no further than our list of the best education stock photos!
Bonus: Adobe Creative Cloud for students!
Did you know as a student, you have preferential access to Adobe Creative Cloud? It's true! If you sign up as a student using the software in your education, Adobe lets you access their Creative Cloud All Apps plan with a nice discount. You can learn all about Creative Cloud for Students in our pricing breakdown here.

Why Do I need Images for my College Projects?

Why Do I need Images for my College Projects?

If you're a student, you likely don't need the answer to this. But maybe you're just getting started in your university studies, or it's your first time trying online education and you still don't know why finding images for your projects is so important.

Our world is every day more and more visual. The old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” stands today more than ever. Images make everything better, and school projects are not the exception. You need to include great and accurate imagery in many of your most important works for a university, from presentations to live websites or blogs you create for a class. We always recommend using these non-profit and charity WordPress themes here for any college project or school-related website, this goes for high school students as well as college students.  If you happen to be studying a graphic or visual related career, this becomes a necessity: you will need images and illustrations for design projects.

And as we briefly mentioned, the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic that locked down entire countries around the world have both made the educational experience 100% virtual for pretty much all students and exacerbated the craving for imagery. 

Why is Stock Photography the Best Solution for College Students?

Whether you are a graphic design student who needs vectors or photos to complete a project, or you’re launching a blog for your journalism class, making sure you have the right to use images legally will save you from any potential legal problems and protect you from copyright issues.

Getting your images from a stock photo agency is the best way to rest assured they are legal and safe to use, because these companies have professionals dedicated to carefully review every photo or image and certify all the permissions are in order, before making them available for you.

Stock photo sites are a great aid in educational technology, all the more in these e-learning times. 

Are There Really Special Stock Photo Offers for Students?

Yes! Many of the biggest stock photography agencies offer special discounts on Royalty Free stock photography, and often times they have offers especially aimed at students or academic institutions.

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Why Can't I Just Use Images I Found with Google?


Google search engine is one of the most useful sources when trying to find photos or images for a project. It's a great tool that provides you with millions of image results based on keywords. But there is a very popular misconception among people that any image found on Google is free to use. Wrong! (read more about it here!)

The only images you are allowed to use are ones you have express permission from the owner. And Google does not (and cannot) give you this permission.

Google does not hold the copyright to any of the images it indexes and therefore is unable to redistribute any of them. Google only indexes the images (and you will learn soon, this action is protected by the Fair Use rule), but they cannot offer them for others to use. If you save an image you found with Google and then you publish it again, you would likely be violating the original creator's rights.

Sure you can ask photographers, illustrators, or designers individually if you find out who created a certain image, but trying to find the content creators today is harder than it seems.

The College Student Image Use Nightmare

Let's say you are a graphic design student, and you've been tasked with creating a live website. This requires vectors, fonts, stock photos, video, etc.

You source all these images and graphics resources from the Web using Google, and in order to complete your project, you take the site live. Soon afterward your site becomes searchable by Google indexing. Your professor gives you a passing grade, and all seems well.

But here's the thing: the site has been optimized for SEO and all the image tags are giving it more visibility.

One day, the person who created the images you used decides to make a reverse image search on Google to make sure his content is not being used without permission. Your site comes up on his results, and he notices you're using his content without authorization. The author then sends you a DMCA take-down request, invoices you, and demands payment and attribution at a much higher rate than it would have costed you to use a stock image.

Like this, you are faced with either paying the high costs the author demands or be taken to court for copyright infringement. As a college student, you likely don't have the money nor the time to deal with that.

And money is a big factor here. Some extraordinary cases can imply huge amounts of money in damages to be paid. Three years ago a photographer got awarded with $1.2 Million in damages by a New York jury after his photographs of the 2010 Haiti earthquake were lifted by many newspapers and online magazines around the globe without his permission.

Of course, that case was rare and the large sum given was related to how widely the images were spread. But still, smaller illegal use cases are much more common than you would think (just because they don't make it into the news), and typical damages to be paid range between $500 and $5000.

Do you imagine having to pay $5000 for the use of a photo, being a student? Sounds like an utter nightmare, doesn't it? Well, all that can be avoided by simply using some cheap Royalty Free stock photos, or by taking a long way and seeking permission from the creator before using their work.

You know you can simply get great, inexpensive stock photos for your school projects at stock photo agencies, making use of some of the best special offers for students.

But if you still want to use free image resources, or you're interested in knowing how image copyright works, and when it is right –or wrong– to use images, here's a resumed explanation of the basic notions to know when using images in your uni projects. Read on!

What is Copyright?

Understanding Image Copyright and Usage Rules

Copyright is a type of legal right that grants the creator of an original work the exclusive rights to control said work's use, sale, distribution, and reproduction. It's what allows authors to protect their creations and to generate revenue from them. Copyright covers all kind of creative works, including photography.

This means the person who created the photo or image is the copyright holder of said image, and they are the ones deciding how and when they are used. Every time you want to use a photo that is copyrighted, you need permission from the owner to do so, legally.

Copyright is present in most of the digital photos or images you can see and find around the Web. Regardless of being offered in free image resources or being indexed by Google Images, most of those photos are in fact copyrighted. If you use them without checking for permissions, you might get into legal trouble, and potentially extend those problems to the institution you are part of.

Myth Busted: If there is no copyright sign, it is not protected?


While in certain countries at certain times, a copyright sign or notice had to be included to express the owner's intent to protect work, for the last decades this has no longer been true. In most European countries, a copyright sign never had any legal meaning, and in the U.S., the need to use it has been completely removed since 1989. Even work published before might still be protected under copyright laws, even if there is no copyright sign visible.

Just because you can find content online without any notice of copyright protection, this does not guarantee it is meant to be given into the public domain. The image might just have been copied and republished (legally or illegally) by a different person.

Only when you have a clear indication that a certain image is in the public domain, or it comes with a creative commons license, you can safely assume that you have the right to use that image.

Can I Use an Image from the Web if I Just Acknowledge the Creator?

Can I Use an Image from the Web if I Just Acknowledge the Creator?

While the acknowledgment of your sources might be an additional requirement for licensing or usage terms, it does not replace the need to ask for permission from the content creator.

A judge might consider the acknowledgment as a way to reduce potential damage because it shows that you had no bad intentions, but typically this would only come into play once the basic violation of copyright is being considered.

When it comes to academic ethics, a policy that values avoiding cheating or plagiarism, and holds honesty and rigor in the research of the highest value. By following this code, it requires you to list the sources of materials you’ve used but does not warrant free use of any material without specific permission to use and republish those works.

What Other Rights Could be Violated when Using a Photo?

What Other Rights Could be Violated when Using a Photo?

Beyond the copyright holder, there can be other rights that might be violated by using an image without permission.

People own the rights over their own personal image and the way it is used, and so if the photo you use includes one or more people, you need to assure they consented to have their likeness included in the image, and to said image to be used in the way you intend.

You may use photos of people without permission to directly write about those persons, the place they were seen in, or a specific event involving them, but using their image for topics not directly related to that context is illegal.

For example, you can use images of a person at a gaming convention to illustrate a text piece where you talk about that convention, or about gaming conventions in general, and that would be acceptable. But if you use the same images to write about how violence in computer games affect the social behavior of players is not allowed. Even more of an infringement would be if you intended to use the images to sell a video game related service or product.

This same principle applies to trademarks or other intellectual rights of companies (like brands, logos or specific designs). You could use a photo of a McDonald's sign to illustrate an article about fast food culture, but not if you want to talk about potential bacterial infections in meat processing unless you can directly connect the topic to that specific company.

Every time the topic in which the image is used might harm the image of the person, company or subject depicted in it, they might be able to sue the user for compensation.

It's important to note here that copyright law varies from country to country, and also that it includes limitations and restrictions. The main limitation of copyright is the one that lets you use images without permission safely: Fair use.

What Does ‘Fair Use’ Mean?

The term ‘fair use’ comes from U.S. copyright law. It's a figure that legally allows and protects you when using someone else’s content for specific commentary and transformative purposes.

This seems to be a difficult copyright law language for most people to fully understand. Fair use applies as legal protection when someone copies or uses copyrighted material, without permission, for ‘transformative’ purposes for commentary, criticism, or parody.

The difficulty resides, for most people, to understand what falls and what doesn't fall under fair use law. Many find the definition of fair use to be too general… and that's absolutely intentional: the Supreme Court purposely leaves fair use law open to interpretation, so that all copyright infringement cases can be studied and defined on a case-to-case basis.

If the copyright holder of an image you used in your project finds out about your unauthorized use, they have the right to take you to court for copyright infringement. But then it will be up to the judge to determine whether or not what you did with the image is fair use.

Judges decide this based on four different factors.

The Four Factors of Fair Use

  1. The purpose and character of your use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

The 5th and Newest Factor

The word “transformative” is one of the most recent Supreme Court decisions about fair use. In 1994 the rap group 2 Live Crew was sued by Roy Orbison’s music label for copyright infringement because they said his song “Oh Pretty Woman” was infringed by a rap song 2 Live Crew release called “Pretty Woman.” (Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, 510 U.S. 569 (1994.)

It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew because they found it to be a parody song of the original work. The song was considered fair use because it was a derivative work that was used in a new or unexpected way.

So if copyrighted material is used in a parody, new technologies (like search engines like Google showing thumbnail images for purposes of indexing image), or other transformative uses can be open to even more interpretation like audio and video, for instance.

We believe it is better to use caution when deciding whether or not to use someone else’s content for your project, especially when determining whether fair use is ok.

Educational and Research Purposes are not Fair Use?

Educational and Research Purposes are not Fair Use?

Yes, there are Fair Use rules that can be applied to education or academic research. But the fair use rule does not mean you can use any work, for any purpose, as long as it is in an academic environment.

Fair use in education and research work is intended to allow schools, universities, and students to learn about and analyze protected or copyrighted works for educational purposes. If you were to write a thesis on how a photographer’s works influenced photography or art in general, you might be allowed to use certain parts of their works to illustrate the effects you are describing.

Fair use policies are typically limiting the use of “quotations” in a specific context. You can not use images for purely illustrative purposes within the context of something that doesn’t have a direct connection to the creator or its works.

For example, if you are publishing an article about the pollution of the ocean, it does not necessarily warrant the use of an image showing the Pacific ocean under “fair use” policies. You might only be able to use someone’s images if the creator published them himself as part of a report on the same topic if your use is merely a quotation of their work.

Therefore, you should never use Google Images as a direct source for imagery to be used in a different context. Always make sure to click through to the page where Google has found that particular image you are interested in to find out when, where, and by whom it was published.

But even then, the “fair use” policies typically only allow you to publish excerpts of someone else’s works. With a photo, this is always a hard decision as typically the image itself is a protected work, and while it is certainly possible to quote a few sentences from a book, it is almost impossible to “quote” a photo without showing more or less the whole work.

How to Use Images in School Projects Without Getting in Trouble?

If you don't want to risk it with the Fair Use policies, there's a simple alternative: to use images in your school works safely, you need to have the permission of the copyright holder of each image.

Photographers and image authors can grant permission for other people to use their work, through a license that states the terms and conditions for said use. There are paid licenses, that imply you paying a fee to the author for the right to use the image. And there are different types of free usage licenses, like the different variants of the Creative Commons license.

Now, most of the files you will find in free photo sites appear to be under Creative Commons or another form of license that lets you use the photos without paying. However, the majority of people uploading content to these sites are not aware of copyright law, and sometimes infringe it –for example, they can upload images they do not own, and therefore the Creative Commons license is not valid–. Even more concerning, most free image suppliers do not check the legality of the content submitted and offered on their sites.

Using free photo sites or Google Images you could easily be infringing someone's copyright without knowing it. And the law does not care whether the infringement was intentional or not: you will still be held responsible for the damage to the copyright holder.

Why Purchase Stock Photos?

Why Purchase Stock Photos?

The best practice for using someone else’s content and be sure you have permission to do so is to purchase Royalty Free stock photos.

Stock photo agencies make their living by collecting photos and images and then licensing them to their customers. As this is a business for them, they are very serious about the legal status of the content they offer. Practically all stock imagery companies have specialized teams committed to reviewing all the images in their libraries and ensuring all the permissions and legal requirements –model and property releases included– are taken care of. That way, the images you can license from them have been filtered, offering you only legally-verified photos. As a bonus, stock photo sites offer a lot more than just photos: vector illustrations, icons, templates, graphic elements, not to mention stock footage and stock audio!

Royalty-Free is one of the most popular stock photo licenses, due to its increased benefits for users. With this license, you pay only once and get to use the image in various ways, in multiple projects, for as long as you want. More than that, the license tends to come at a very affordable price.

While there are a few free stock photography websites out there, there are some good reasons why you should purchase affordable stock photos.

  1. With a Royalty-Free license you can use the image more than once (in some cases, forever)
  2. Every photo or image you download has a standard license, Royalty-Free, so you are protected under the terms and conditions of the stock photo agency.
  3. Many agencies offer free stock images to members
  4. Stock photo agencies have vast image libraries and options with millions and millions of pieces of content available

Still not sure? Read the 7 Reasons why you should buy stock photos.

Understanding How Stock Photos Work

Understanding How Stock Photos Work

 Now you know Royalty Free stock photos are a great resource to get images for your university projects that are safe to use, and inexpensive.

Stock photos work based on licenses (in this case, Royalty-Free license), which means you pay a fee to get a number of rights to use the photo, vector, or illustration in all the ways stated in the licensing terms.

Here are some considerations to better understand how stock photos work, and what you can and cannot do with them.

Can I share my Stock Photos with Others?

No. the typical image license is personal and non-transferable, so you cannot share images licensed or purchased from photographers or stock agencies unless you have a license that specifically allows you to do so (which is oftentimes available, but at a higher cost).

Commonly, the standard stock photo license gives you the right to share and publish the images you licensed as part of your work or design (presentation, article, thesis, etc.), without having to worry about copyright and fair use laws. But you are not allowed to share or redistribute the image you downloaded from a stock agency before you use it in your own work.

Also very important is that only the person who purchased the license to the image can use it, in multiple ways and times. If you acquired a stock photo from an agency, you cannot give it to a friend for them to publish it in their presentation: only you can use that photo legally.

Can I use my Stock Photos for Other Purposes other than College Work?

In beginning, yes. Royalty-Free license for stock images allows a wide range of uses, that includes but is not limited to academic work. Standard Royalty Free images can be used for both commercial and editorial purposes.

Education Stock Photos as a Theme 

It can also happen that you need photos for a project related to the topic of education, studying, teaching, and learning. If this is the case, you can rest assured that you won't be short of choice in education stock images at stock photo sites! 

Most popular stock photography agencies include wide selections of photos within this theme, all the more now with the new normal of virtual learning! For example, the ever-prestigious Getty Images has a curated collection for Distance Learning. 

And all the same parameters we explained above apply to them. If they're Royalty-Free, they are also safe to use in commercial-oriented designs as well. 

Why purchase royalty-free images?

Some of your projects as a student may require the use of images to illustrate points in your thesis or papers, or even if you’re a design student who needs some. With the rising costs of tuition, having to worry about spending money on projects will seem undesirable.

Luckily there are affordable stock images and free stock photos in the public domain that may suit your project needs. The benefit and value of using royalty-free photos are that once you purchase them you can use them forever.

There are many cheap stock photography options where you can get a discount for just being a student. Stock photo agencies like our Stock Photo Secrets 99club offer, Shutterstock, iStock, Adobe Stock, and more cheap stock photo agencies, all have affordable membership plans for non-profits, universities, and students.

We hope this guide will help you better understand stock photography, and the ins and out of copyright law. Fair use may seem like a gray area, well, because it is… It is purposefully ambiguous to be left open for interpretation, so claiming fair use in one of your projects for school should be very carefully considered before using someone else’s work.

The more you know about what is allowed and what is not, will help you to tread the legal waters of copyright and better understand what copyright infringement might be. Using stock photography for your projects is affordable these days, with plenty of discounts for students that need just the right content to enhance their projects.


Stock Photo Secrets