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Images and Copyright: Can I Use This Image?

Images and Copyright

How do you know what images you can use?  Follow these steps to make your copyright decisions for images.

  1. Is it copyrighted?
  2. Is it licensed?
  3. Is it fair use? 
  4. Can I ask permission?

1. What is Copyright?

Copyright grants an author of an original work the right to control the production, public display, and distribution of that work as well as the sole right to produce derivative works. Copyright lasts for a specific amount of time. Once a work passes this amount of time, it enters the public domain and may be used without restriction. There are some limitations to copyright that allow for certain uses of protected works, the most common being fair use.

In deciding if you can use an image, first determine if it is still copyrighted or if it is in the public domain using the Digital Copyright Slider.

If the image is in the public domain, use it. If not, go on to Step 2: Is it licensed?

2. License Agreements

A license agreement defines the terms set by the copyright holder by which others may use their work.  Payments for use of the licensed content are called royalties.  

When reading licenses, look for these topics:

  • Commercial or non-commercial permissions
  • Permissions to create derivative work
  • Request to attribute the work
  • Mode and size of permitted distribution
  • Specific Restrictions

Keep an eye out for Creative Commons licenses, which allow for free use of content under certain circumstances.

To find a license agreement for images on the open Internet, look for a link to Terms and Conditions, Terms of Use, or Permissions at the bottom of the page.

If your intended use is allowed by the license, use the image. If not, go on to step 3: Is it fair use?

3. Fair Use - The Four Factors

There are four factors that courts use to decide if a use is fair. You need to have a balance of these four factors - satisfying just one may not be enough.

  1. How are you using the image? Is your use personal? Are you using it for the purposes of education, journalism, or criticism? These uses are more likely to be fair than a commercial use. Are you transforming the work or are you using it for its original intended purpose. Transformative uses are more likely to be fair.
  2. What is the nature of the work? The  more creative the work, the more protected it is. Images that are artistic weigh against fair use.
  3. How much are you using? Are you using only as much as is necessary for your purpose? 
  4. What is the effect on the market? If there is no impact on the intended market of the image, or if there is no possible way to obtain permission, your use is more likely to be fair.

4. Getting Permission

Getting permission is always less risky than simply relying on fair use if you intend to use the image online. It is best to have permission in writing, even if it is just an email. Make sure to inform the copyright holder exactly how you intend to use the image.

Sample permission letter to host content online

​Finding the Copyright Holder

Sometimes, it can be difficult to locate the original copyright holder. Hopefully, the site attributes and links the image to the proper source so that you can contact the rights holder. If that is not the case, you could use a reverse image search engine to try to find the original site. If there is no contact information on the website, you can use WHOIS to look it up the domain registry.