Copyright Law and Legally Using Images in Slide Presentations

Copyright Law and Legally Using Images in Slides and Presentations

This post is about legally using images and establishing best practices when using images protected by copyright. Whenever you include an image in a presentation slide or in a print or electronic document or post an image online, you should consider the copyright implications. Establishing best practices for legally using images will help minimize your risks of copyright infringement and lead you towards a consistent use of images and towards your goal of legally using images.

Legally Using Images in Slide Presentations

How much attention are you paying to copyright law when you create slides for a presentation in your organization? Most of us are more focused on our presentation and using some images here and there to enhance our speaking points. But copyright law considerations should be an equal component when preparing slides for a presentation.

Legally Using Images

Are You Legally Using Images?

As with most copyright issues, the matter of appropriate usage for slide presentations is nuanced, and the answer to many questions is the ever-popular (in copyright parlance) “it depends” or “maybe” or “let’s examine your particular circumstances”. Legally using images in your presentations is an essential skill in this day and age.

Assume that Copyright Law Applies

Always assume that any image or other work you find online or elsewhere is protected by copyright and that you must seek permission to use it. Once you identify the image you want to use, it is never too early to start thinking about its copyright status and whether you need permission to use it.

If you determine that copyright in a work has expired and the work is in the public domain (because, say, the author died more than 70 years ago for U.S. purposes or more than 50 years ago for Canadian purposes), then you can use the work without obtaining permission. However, if the work has been manipulated or adapted and would constitute a new work, that new work may have a new and longer copyright duration and may be protected by copyright, even though the underlying work is in the public domain.

Click here to learn more about U.S. Copyright Law

You may state facts and news and describe historical events as long as you don’t reproduce them exactly as you found them in the source. You can also summarize facts, historical information, and the like without obtaining permission. This basic principle of copyright law works for text but is more difficult to apply to the use of images. You could however use data or summarize it rather than reproduce, adapt, or share the source table or chart without permission.


  • Create Your Own — Can you use a chart displaying the data you need that a fellow employee created (and in which your employer owns the copyright)? Consider taking a photograph yourself of the tourist attraction you want to feature in your presentation, keeping in mind that if this is done for work purposes and taken in the course of your employment duties, your company could own the copyright in it.
  • Use a Stock Photo Agency — Your organization may have an account with a stock photo agency where you can find images that suit your purpose. Make sure you read the license (which might limit how the image is used) and follow the terms and conditions of this agreement with the agency.
  • Apply a Creative Commons License — If the work is covered by a Creative Commons license and your use is in accordance with its terms, you can use it. However, be sure to read the license. Not all CC licenses are created equally, and there are restrictions even on CC-licensed content.

Do Not Rely on Prior Permissions

If you have been permitted to use that image previously, ask yourself to do what, where to use it, and for how long? Just because the copyright owner granted you permission to include her photograph in a one-time time management training session at your company’s headquarters in Baltimore doesn’t mean you can use that photo in a public presentation being made across North America. Know the terms of licenses and assignments (i.e., permissions), and if they don’t apply to the current situation, either seek additional permission or use an alternative.

Use the Images As-Is

Re-coloring images or changing black and white images to color, cropping them, or otherwise manipulating them cannot be done without the copyright holder’s permission.

Does Fair Use or Fair Dealing Apply?

If you’ve found a copyright-protected work that you want to reproduce in your presentation and are unable or unwilling to seek permission to use it, you could employ the fair use (United States) or fair dealing (Canada) provisions. Under these provisions, you may be able to reproduce a work without permission in some situations.

Fair use and fair dealing are not without risk. There are varying levels of analysis involved, and the only way to know for certain if your assessment is correct is in a court of law. It is wise to know your organization’s risk tolerance for an inaccurate fair use or fair dealing determination, and advisable to consult internal policy, a copyright specialist, and/or your legal counsel.

Familiarize Yourself with Copyright Law

Everyone needs to be familiar with the basics of copyright. Whether you’re designing presentations, writing the company newsletter, or photocopying materials, you can benefit from taking copyright courses and learning when and where to seek guidance.

Learn copyright right! See our Copyright Leadership Certificate program. It may be just what you are looking for!

Read about developing a copyright policy or guidelines that contain best practices for legally using images.


  1. Lesley Ellen Harris says:

    Glad the article is helpful to you. Keep legally using images!

  2. Robert Cagna says:

    Thank you, Ms. Harris!

Comments are now closed for this article.

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