Image Use & Copyright

A guide to legally using artwork found on the internet.

Can I use images that I find on the internet?
Generally, no. Images found on websites are automatically protected. Artists do not have to register their works in order to protect them, they do not need to provide a notice of any kind, and the © symbol does not have to be included with an image in order for it to be protected.

However, you can use images that have passed into the public domain and you can use images if you obtain permission from the owner.

You may also be able to use a work or portion of a work without permission for research, teaching, scholarship, comment, criticism, and news reporting. For more information see: US Copyright Office: Fair Use Information

Additional exceptions apply to educators, for more information about reproducing images for use within educational institutions for teaching and research and reproduction by librarians for archival purposes: Reproduction of Copyrighted Works by Educators and Librarians

How to determine if a work is in the public domain (United States)

Created 1-1-78 or after When work is fixed in tangible medium of expression Life + 70 years1(or if work of corporate authorship, the shorter of 95 years from publication, or 120 years from creation2
Published before 1923 In public domain  None
Published from 1923 - 63 When published with notice3 28 years but could be renewed for 47, now extended by 20 for a total renewal of 67 years. If not so renewed, now in public domain
Published from 1964 - 77 When published with notice 28 years for first term; now automatic extension of 67 years for second term
Created before 1-1-78 but not published 1-1-78 Life + 70 years or 12-31-2002, whichever is greater
Created before
1-1-78 but published between then and 12-31-2002
1-1-78 Life + 70 years or 12-31-2047 whichever is greater

1 Term of joint works is measured by life of the longest-lived author.

2 Works for hire, anonymous and pseudonymous works also have this term.  17 U.S.C. § 302(c).

3 Under the 1909 Act, works published without notice went into the public domain upon publication. Works published without notice between 1-1-78 and 3-1-89, effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act, retained copyright only if efforts to correct the accidental omission of notice was made within five years, such as by placing notice on unsold copies. 17 U.S.C. § 405.

(Notes courtesy of Professor Tom Field, Franklin Pierce Law Center and Lolly Gasaway) Chart courtesy of Lolly Gasaway, University of North Carolina When U.S. Works Pass into the Public Domain

If you do not know when or where a work was created then you should assume that you cannot use it for any purpose.

How to obtain image use permission from the copyright owner
Contact the owner directly. Artists, museums, and other institutions often grant permission for image use including use in research, teaching, and commercial projects. A usage fee may or may not apply depending on the policies of the owner and the type of use requested.

Can't find the owner? Do a search at the US Copyright Office: Search Records

See also: Copyright for Artists A detailed guide to preventing and resolving copyright issues.

This document was created on November 12, 2009. The above information is believed to be correct, however it was not prepared by a lawyer, it is not legal advice, it may be out of date, and if you are outside of the U.S. some of this information may not apply to your situation. If you want to be certain that the information you have is correct and applies to your situation then you must consult an attorney.

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