Multimodal Mondays: Can I Use That Image? Understanding Visual Attribution Practices

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­Multimodal Mondays: Can I Use That Image? Understanding Visual Attribution Practices

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Kim Haimes-Korn is a Professor of English and Digital Writing at Kennesaw State University. She also trains graduate student writing teachers in composition theory and pedagogy. Kim’s teaching philosophy encourages dynamic learning and critical digital literacies and focuses on students’ powers to create their own knowledge through language and various “acts of composition.” She likes to have fun every day, return to nature when things get too crazy, and think deeply about way too many things. She loves teaching. It has helped her understand the value of amazing relationships and boundless creativity. You can reach Kim at or visit her website: Acts of Composition


Digital and multimodal composers use images across their projects to create engaging visual content. It is so easy for students to search the internet and include images in their texts, but we want them to ask the question, Can I use that image? This is particularly important amidst conversations relating to intellectual property and ethical dilemmas related to image use. I find that students often use visuals without considering if they have permission to do so and feel as if they have free reign with anything that is out there. Many times, students do not even realize they are violating copyright. With multimodal composition, we encourage students to incorporate images and curated content in their digital work, so it is vital that they develop the knowledge and skills to make strong, ethical choices. Since there are so many changes every day in relation to digital content – it is both the wild west and a moving target -- I think it is a worthy effort to teach students ethical image use and thoughtful citation practices.  These activities and assignments help students to critically evaluate found sources for ethical image use.

Background and Resources

Introduce Terms and Definitions

Introduce students to the concepts of Copyright, Fair Use, and Public Domain. I show them this short video, Creativity, Copyright and Fair Use produced through Common Sense Education, a site that prepares students for digital citizenship and does a good job of introducing these terms and provides a wealth of resources.  This helps situate and contextualize the larger conversation in relation to intellectual property.

Conduct Image Searches Through Google

I have students conduct image searches through Google search functions by asking them to generate keywords related to their subjects. They can pull these keywords from previously written texts, research, or just brainstorm subjects they are considering.  The next step is to show them how to find out if these images are copyright free and available for open use.

Google has a built-in tool that filters image results to search for Creative Commons licenses. When we conduct a search, the engine generally brings up all articles and references. We can click on images in the search bar menu to bring up images only and narrow the search to include only copyright free images. After we enter our search term into the Google Images search bar, click on Tools and we see a drop-down menu under Usage Rights that allows us to choose a type of license. It gives the options of “All,” “Creative Commons”, or “Commercial and other licenses” (See Google Support document, Find Images You Can Use and Share for specific instructions).  Once we choose Creative Commons it filters out and narrows down the options to those that are copyright free.

We could stop right there but there is an additional step that helps us learn more about the details of the usage rights for that particular image. If we click on the tag “License details” or “Learn More” we can find out more information about the terms of use that defines how they can use that image such as “free to use with attribution.”

Understanding Types of Images:Sunset: End of another day? or transition? or happiness? How do images communicate meaning -- literal or representative?Sunset: End of another day? or transition? or happiness? How do images communicate meaning -- literal or representative?

It is important that students understand the difference between literal and representative images.

  1. Literal images capture experiences or objects in their most basic sense without metaphor or interpretation.  These images are usually direct references to ideas or concepts and generally not subject to varied interpretations.
  2. Representative images are abstract and often symbolize something and include metaphor or interpretation. They are usually indirect and are subject to multiple, possible interpretations. 

So, we can think of our search for a sunset to represent an actual reference to the sun setting (literal image) or we can think of it as a metaphor for transition (representative image) or a feeling such as happiness. We can also ask students to use search terms that start out as abstract such as freedom, love, success, or racism, to see what kinds of images surface with these terms. I like to have students do these kinds of searches in both the invention (for idea generation) and drafting phases (for image inclusion) of their composing processes.

Captions Contextualize the Image

Captions bring images and text together to communicate interrelated meaning. We can’t just insert an image and expect it to speak for itself. It is our responsibility to create context as the writing of captions is more than just identification (“This is a sunset”) and should instead be considered an integral part of the writing and connect to the written ideas. “Providing captions for images allows you to contextualize the relevance of this visual content as it relates to your research” (Purdue Owl). We can extend information, explain details, ask provoking questions, and present additional engaging content for readers to consider. We can also include linked reference information to connect the image to its original source or, in the case of referenced images provide citation details. Check out and share this article on How to Write Good Captions. We should also ask students to consider captioning images for digital accessibility through alt text tags.

Copyright free resources

It is important that students know about the abundance of copyright-free resources available to them. I introduce them to Creative Commons, Public Domain, and other third-party resources that offer copyright free images for use in blogs, articles, and other educational work such as Unsplash, Pexels, or Pixabay among others. These resources also allow users to explore deeper with instructions for attribution and license details. Just exposing them to these resources creates awareness and invites them to be part of larger communities of image makers.

Steps to the Assignment

Although these prompts can be used in isolation for random terms, it is best to have them connected to particular projects to make them more meaningful.  

  1. Introduce terms and definitions for Fair Use, Creative Commons, and Public Domain.
  2. Have students choose keywords from their writing or brainstorm on their subjects to provide search terms.
  3. Ask them to enter keywords into a Google search -- include both literal and representative terms.  
  4. Filter images for usage rights.
  5. Have them dig deeper and identify license details to find out what they need to do to use the image. 
  6. Caption the image with meaningful connections and citation if necessary.
  7. Insert the captioned image into their digital content. Remind them to position the image near the text to which it is connected. 

Reflection on the Activities

Students often see images on the internet and assume if something is out there, that they have the right to use it for their own purposes. This myth is supported through meme culture that relies on the repetition and distribution of undocumented images. In this world today issues of intellectual property and AI necessitate that students understand and have access to these tools to make informed choices. This seems like common knowledge, but I find that most students do not know how to conduct this kind of deeper search that outlines citation practices and the best methods for attribution. This kind of awareness is important for ethical image use and helps us communicate that we are thoughtfully using images in good faith.


About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.