Finding Images for Your Genealogy Blog

You might have 1000 words but that won’t replace finding just the right image for your post.

BooksThe right image will enhance your post and invite readers to read your words. It will draw them in and make them click to find out more. (Didn’t you want to learn more about whatever I might be writing about when you saw that goat eating a photograph of grass?) And as genealogists, that is what we want right? Who knows when that long-lost cousin will be just a click away from getting in touch with us and sharing all those lovely family photographs and the elusive family bible!

Images can also add to our stories, showing life the way it was back in the days of our ancestors, or illustrating some research journey we’ve just returned from or a new discovery that we’ve just made. They don’t even have to be old images to highlight a blog post. Sometimes modern images work just as well, such as the stack of books pictured above. This image was downloaded from Free Images, a website with high quality public domain images.


Just because it is on the internet, doesn’t mean you can use it. And likewise, just because you have a  photograph in your possession or a digital copy of one on your hard drive, that doesn’t mean you can use it either. Merriam-Webster gives this simple definition of copyright:

the legal right to be the only one to reproduce, publish, and sell a book, musical recording, etc., for a certain period of timeMerriam-Webster Dictionary

The burning question of course is, how long is that ‘certain period of time’? The answer is not simple by any stretch. It depends on where you live and what copyright laws cover the photograph or image in question. I’m not a lawyer so I’m not going to attempt to provide any advice on how to determine if an image is under copyright or whether it can be freely used. The easiest way to get information on the laws surrounding copyright in your country is to search for the copyright office or government website for your jurisdiction.

Even then, there are international copyright rules such as those detailed in the Berne Convention.

The Berne Convention formally mandated several aspects of modern copyright law; it introduced the concept that a copyright exists the moment a work is “fixed”, rather than requiring registration. It also enforces a requirement that countries recognize copyrights held by the citizens of all other signatory countries.Wikipedia - Berne Convention
Berne Convention signatories

Berne Convention Signatories – Wikimedia Commons – GNU Free Documentation License

And finally, there is fair use (a US term) or fair dealing (used in many Commonwealth countries) which considers, among other things, the purpose you are using material for, the way you used it, how much you used, the nature of the work in which you used it and whether or not the use of it is likely to affect the market of the original work.

It is all pretty confusing, and even for those of us who want to do the right thing. And if an image is under copyright, then who do we ask for permission? For example, if the original photographer owns the copyright but has given permission for his work to be digitized in a collection and then that collection of digital images are licensed by some website, who exactly owns the copyright and who do we have to approach for permission?

Public Domain

The term “public domain” refers to creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.Welcome to the Public Domain by Rich Stim at Stanford University

So that is what Public Domain means, but how do we know what is in the Public Domain? Again, the answer is not simple. Again it varies by location and it is also governed by the Bern Convention for countries who signed that agreement.

Be it right, or be it wrong, I tend to work under the assumption that anything on Wikimedia Commons that has been posted as public domain content, is usually going to actually be in the public domain. My rational is that if it was actually under copyright, someone would have asked to have it removed and there is generally a brief description that states why the uploader felt that the image was under the public domain.

Civil War Image


And if an image is very old, and there is no indication that there might be copyright restrictions on it, I normally assume (for the purposes of blogging at least) that the image is in the public domain. The image titled ‘Fortifications on the Heights of Centreville’ above was found on the Library of Congress website and it is flagged with their usual disclaimer: Rights assessment is your responsibility. The image is from 1866 and the photographer has been dead since 1891, well over a hundred years ago.

Sources for Public Domain Images

Creative Commons

So what is this Creative Commons we keep hearing about? Creative Commons was founded in 2001 and is dedicated to keeping the internet creative, free and open. In keeping with their goal, they’ve come up with a variety of licenses that can be used in place of copyright restricted. These are almost as complicated as copyright to understand and you can read more about the various licenses on the Creative Commons website. Most of these focus on sharing, with attribution for either noncommercial uses or even for commercial uses.

Sources for Creative Commons Images

To find other sources for Creative Commons licensed images, use Google’s image search with the appropriate settings:

Google for images

Old Photographs

Some of you are no doubt fortunate to have family photographs but you need to remember that just having possession does not necessarily mean that you are free to share them. The copyright on those images belongs to the photographer, or at least did at the time it was taken and afterwards for a period of years as described under copyright law. That makes things pretty complicated since most of us are not even sure who is in the photographs, never mind who took them, with the possible exception of professional photographers or photography studios, who normally put some type of identification on the photograph itself.

Jessie Williams, Josephine, Jack and WillieThis photograph in my collection was taken by Hy Dagerais at his studio at 542 Lagauchetiere in Montreal at about the turn of the century. I’ve done my level best to research this studio and this photographer and I believe that he died early in the nineteenth century, certainly more than 100 years ago which is more than the requirement for copyright expiry in Canada. I can find no reference to anyone who might have inherited his work. There does not appear to be much information about him at all and I’ve even tried to research this gentleman on Ancestry without any luck. My assumption, right or wrong, is that this photograph is no longer protected by copyright and so I feel free to share it when I’m writing about my grandmother Jessie Bond, or her children (from left to right, Florence, Willie and John who is my grandfather).

For other photographs in my possession that do not appear to have been taken commercially, I would normally ask permission of the photographer if I know who took them, but if they are very old and that is unknown, then I normally (again right or wrong) assume that no one alive still holds a copyright and that it is pretty unlikely that anyone will come forward to object to me sharing them on my blog.

Making Your Own Images

One of the ways that I obtain unique images for my blog, presentations and the like is to make my own compilations using my own photographs, public domain images and free clip art. If you have PowerPoint, this is pretty simple to do and I’ve used images created that way in my Brick Wall series (using public domain images) and in this post on Contact Forms using a compilation of public domain images and my own photography.  The other tool that I’ve just recently discovered is Canva. It is an online image design website that lets anyone become a designer. I used it yesterday to create this image for The Social Historian Facebook page. Creating an account is free, as is designing images as long as you use the free components or your own images. Even for the paid images, the charges seem to be just a dollar which isn’t prohibitive. I certainly got my $1 worth of enjoyment out of creating this Facebook header!

The social historian

Bottom Line

I’m not a lawyer, and by no means do I pretend to understand all of the nuances of copyright laws around the world. To quote the Library of Congress, please note that Rights assessment is your responsibility.

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