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Copyright & Fair Use

Using Images

Copyright law guarantees the creator of a work the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display and prepare derivative works. It also provides a number of limitations to those rights, including Fair Use

Images, like sound recordings or performances, can have multiple copyrights attached to them. The photographer responsible for an image can hold a copyright, and any copyrighted works pictured in the photograph (underlying works) may add another layer of rights to the image. There are several notable exemptions: 

Two dimensional visual works

  • Courts have ruled that exact reproductions of two-dimensional works of art such as paintings, prints, or photographs lack the minimal creativity for copyright protection in the United States (Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel, 36 F. Supp. 2d 191 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).
  • For instance, a photographer does not hold a copyright to a photograph that is a 1:1 reproduction of a painting, but the artist/creator of the painting (the underlying work) may still hold a copyright.

Architectural works

  • "The copyright in an architectural work that has been constructed does not include the right to prevent the making, distributing, or public display of pictures, paintings, photographs, or other pictorial representations of the work, if the building in which the work is embodied is located in or ordinarily visible from a public place." (U.S. Copyright Law, Section 120).
  • This is an exemption to the architect/creator's rights to the underlying work. The creator of the pictorial representation (photographer, painter, etc.) may still hold copyright to their image.

Fair Use

  • A Fair Use evaluation can be conducted for any copyrighted work, including images.
  • See the Fair Use tab for further information.

Image Use In the Classroom

Face-to-Face teaching (Section 110(1))

U.S. Copyright Law states that “performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction” is NOT copyright infringement (Section 110(1)).

The Visual Resources Association also supports the Fair Use of images in teaching with their Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts which articulates a number of principles relating to image use in an educational context. It states that "...the reproduction and use of images for teaching – whether in face-to-face teaching, non-synchronous teaching activities, or non-course related academic lectures – should be consistent with fair use." It goes on to suggest that a Fair Use argument may be bolstered by:

  • Informing class participants that materials are being made available for teaching, research and study purposed only
  • Restricting materials to class participants only
  • Attributing images to known copyright holders
  • Using third party (institutionally licensed, open access, etc.) image sources to provide access to materials

When using audiovisual works, including motion pictures, audio recordings, and images, the works must be lawfully made copies, and the instructor displaying the works must know the origin or have no reason to believe the copies were not lawfully made.

Image Use by Students

Use of copyrighted images for study, research and teaching in coursework is allowable using Fair Use. See Fair Use for Student Coursework for more information.

Image Use in Theses and Dissertations

If you want to include the work of others in your thesis or dissertation, whether in the form of reproduced images or charts, music, long quotations, standard tests or computer software etc., you will need to evaluate whether simple attribution is sufficient, or if your intended use requires you to seek permission of the copyright holder.  Certainly sources must always be credited to avoid plagiarism, but understand that crediting the source does not eliminate the obligation to seek permission when appropriate.

You do not need to seek permission if:

1. The work is in the public domain. Public domain works include those written before 1923, and some authored afterwards. Determining the copyright status can be tricky. For assistance see Cornell's regularly updated chart of PD works:

2. The material in question is openly licensed, such as under a Creative Commons license, or the author has otherwise explicitly granted permission; look for the CC symbol displayed on the work. Many sites and blogs are licensed this way. Investigate open access journals for research in your discipline.

3. You follow fair use guidelines:

Image Use for Publication

Using images in scholarly publications definitely raises permissions concerns, and can be complex, time-consuming, and expensive. The following comprehensive resource from Georgetown University can help you to understand the issues and how to navigate them:   

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