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Copyright Overview

Under United States copyright law, in most cases, the creator of an artistic work has the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute his or her work. So, when you use someone else's images in papers, presentations, or websites, it is important to make sure that your use is permissible under copyright law.

United States Constitution

Copyright protection has its basis in the United States Constitution, which states that, “The Congress shall have Power To...promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries....” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8).

Copyright Act of 1976

The Copyright Act of 1976 grants to creators exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, adapt, perform, and display their works. There are, however, limits on copyright protection that allow creators of new works to use limited portions of copyrighted material. This supports the goal of promoting the progress of science and the useful arts by allowing new works to build on existing works, even when they are protected by copyright.

Is the image copyrighted?

It is very easy to download, modify, and use images found on the Internet and such images can greatly enhance your papers, projects, websites, and presentations. Most of these images, however, are protected by copyright, which means that you may need permission from the the rights holder in order to use them.

Today, the process of copyrighting a work is automatic and does not require that the work be registered with the Copyright Office or that the © symbol be published with the work. This means that most images you find online are subject to copyright protection and should not be used in your works or shared with others unless there is an exception to this general rule that might apply to your use.

Is there an exception that will allow my use?

Answer the 4 questions in the column to the right to see if there is an exception to the copyright law that will justify your use of the image. In order to answer these questions, you will need to look for copyright or rights information for the image you want to use. This could be provided with each image or it could be on a "Terms of Use" or "Rights" page for the website.

For a visual overview of the process of determining whether you can post an image on your website, go to the Should I Post this Image. Note that this image has a Creative Commons BY-NC license so it is OK to use non-commercial purposes with attibution to the creators, Pia Bijkerk and Erin Loechner.

Don't forget to document where you found the image so that you can cite the material and provide appropriate attribution!

Is the work in the public domain?

If a work is in the public domain, it is not protected by copyright and may be used and adapted without restriction. Two broad categories of works in the public domain are (i) works published before 1923, and (ii) works of the United States government. Due to changes in copyright law over time, there are other materials that may be in the public domain due to the expiration of copyright. Cornell's Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States has a chart with full details. Works can also be dedicated to the public domain by their creators.

Is the work open access with a usable license?

Open access works may be shared and reused, subject to any restrictions placed by the author or creator. They may be (i) freely available online, but retain copyright restrictions or (ii) freely available online and free of some or all restrictions on their use. The Creative Commons (CC) is a licensing system designed to make it easier for people to share their open access works with others. 

Is my use a fair use?

Fair use permits limited use of copyrighted material without acquiring permission from the rights holders. It is a flexible right that allows portions of any copyrighted material to be used in new works. To determine whether a use is fair, four factors must be evaluated for each item to be used.

  1. The purpose and character of the use
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for the work

The analysis of these four factors is subjective, and users and copyright holders sometimes disagree on whether a particular use is fair. If you are considering fair use, check out our Fair Use page first.

None of the above?

If none of the options listed above applies to the work you want to use, you will need to ask for permission from the copyright holder. Unfortunately, getting permission to use copyrighted works can be a very frustrating and time-consumoing experience and it is hard to predict in advance what the results will be. For more information, visit our Permissions page.

Best Practices

Check Rights First! Start your image search with resources that have few or no copyright restrictions. It is much easier to work with an image you know you can use than to have to seek permission later. Images with few or no restrictions include those in the public domain and those with Creative Commons licenses.

Check Rights Carefully! Note that some images with Creative Commons licenses derive from sources protected by copyright. Always evaluate the image yourself to be sure that the creator of the file has not incorporated unlicensed content.

Creative Commons   This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 International License. | Details of our policy