Legally Using Images

Are You Using Copyright-Protected Images?

In this post, you will be alerted to situations when you have to determine whether you are legally using images which will help strengthen your efforts to stay copyright compliant. If you use images of book covers, or use images on blogs and in distance education courses, then you want to ensure that your use of copyright-protected images is legal and you are not infringing upon the intellectual property rights of any copyright owners when using their images.

Are You Legally Using Images?

More and more we are using images to enhance text-based documents, annual reports, websites and blogs.  As a universal rule, most images are protected by copyright laws around the world and permission is required to use the image as is, or to adapt it.  Let’s look at some of the specifics surrounding this general rule.

U.S. Copyright Act

Copyright law in imagesImages may be defined in various manners.  Under the U.S. Copyright Act, images of various sorts are called “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works”.  These works are defined to “include two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans.”  So illustrations, photographs, charts and the like, are all protected by copyright.

The full range of rights attach to owners of these works.  The owner of copyright has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize the reproduction of the images, prepare new works based on the original works, distribute copies to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending; and to display the works in public.

Using Book Covers

A common occurrence is using the images of book covers in various ways such as in catalogues and bibliographies.  Is it permissible to scan the cover of a book for these and other similar purposes?  How about saving a copy of the cover from the publisher’s website?  Scanning an image/book cover is a reproduction of a work as is copying that image/cover from a website.  Would this be considered fair use as set out in the U.S. Copyright Act?  As fair use is an analysis based upon the circumstances in each particular case, you would have to analyze your own situations of using book covers and determine whether each use would qualify under the four fair use factors.  Many organizations are comfortable applying fair use whereas others want to be 100% sure that their uses are within the law.  If you fit in this latter category, approach the book publisher and see whether they own the copyright in the cover art or whether you have to contact the creator directly.

Images on Blogs

Does the use of an image on your blog require permission?  Certainly, if the image is part of the design of your blog and/or repetitively used or adapted for your use, you will need permission to use the image.  If the image is part of a particular posting in a blog, you will need to apply the fair use factors and determine on a case-by-case basis whether your use requires permission. Also see: 6 Essential Tips for Legally Using Images.

Course Materials and Learning Management Systems such as Blackboard

Learning material is often enhanced by the use of images.  In a corporate setting, the application of fair use to using images in course materials (especially repeated use of those materials) would be less acceptable, whereas the one time/one semester use of an image in a university course may more likely be considered fair use.

Do You Always Need to Obtain Permission?

Those familiar with fair use know that it is always up to a court of law to determine its applicability in any one situation.  As such if you need reassurance or are in doubt, it is always best to obtain permission.  There are a few circumstances when you do not need permission.  If the image you are using is in the public domain, a U.S. federal government image (though not all government works are in the public domain), or the copyright owner has clearly (and reliably) stated that you may freely use the image without obtaining permission.

Additional Rights

To complicate matters, in the U.S., the creator of a work of visual art has additional rights set out in the Copyright Act.  These are called moral rights and allow an artist to have his name on his work and to prevent modifications that may be prejudicial to the artist’s reputation or honor.  A work of visual art is: “a painting, drawing, print or sculpture, existing in a single copy, in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author,  and “a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author.”  This does not include a “poster, map, globe, chart, technical drawing, diagram, model, applied art, motion picture or other audiovisual work, book, magazine, newspaper, periodical, data base, electronic information service, electronic publication, or similar publication”, or any work for hire (i.e., work made in the course of employment duties.)

The moral rights come into play when you change a photograph from color to black and white, or you manipulate a digital drawing, or omit the artist’s name from a print or drawing.  Under the definition of work of visual art in the U.S., few works used in libraries or in corporate settings would have authors who have moral rights.  However, in most countries outside the U.S., authors of all kinds of works from photographs to drawings to business documents to computer software all enjoy moral rights.  Thus, when using images in other countries or on websites or blogs that are accessible around the world, you should respect the moral rights of attribution and integrity.

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  1. Lesley says:

    Generally, any reproduction or use of a photograph requires permission. In most countries, copyright laws (the right of authorship under moral rights) would also require the name of the author to be attached to the reproduction of the work as well.

  2. Lesley says:

    Hi Deanna, a photograph or drawing is equally protected by copyright. So permission is necessary.

  3. Lesley says:

    Hi Fatima, scanning a document in the public domain as you are aware does not require copyright permission. Whether the scanned document has a new copyright in it depends on the facts in each particular situation. Is it a mere scan or was some creativity or skill put into making the scan? The answer would vary in different jurisdictions.

  4. Andrea says:

    Are you required to obtain permission for using a photo and name of another person when publishing a book (for profit)?

  5. Deanna says:

    I’m putting together a web-based training, and one example I’m using is regarding a urinary catheter. I found a picture of a catheter. It’s not a photograph; it’s more like a drawing – very simple. Do I need permission to use this graphic in my web-based training? Thanks.

  6. Fatima says:

    Hi, If someone had digitized a scan of an ancient manuscript, does he own the copyright on that image? Or because the manuscript is not copyrighted, the digital scan is not copyrighted either? How does the law apply in this case?

  7. Lesley says:

    Hi Jay, best off obtaining permission for this kind of use.

  8. Lesley says:

    Hi Dave, it depends what country you are in. Collages are permitted in certain copyright laws (but not currently in the U.S.)

  9. Lesley says:

    Hi Cindy, if it’s for personal use, it likely wouldn’t be a problem.

  10. Lesley says:

    Hi Marco, look at the terms and conditions of use on that site and you’ll have your answer.

  11. Lesley says:

    Hi Sara, photographing the cartoon would be a copyright violation if you do not have permission to do so.

  12. Lesley says:

    Hi Jordan, copyright has expired in the Mona Lisa and you are free to do as you wish as least in the US or Canada. There’s an interesting concept called Moral Rights which is perpetual in Europe which may change my response in European countries. An interesting article on this topic is at

  13. Lesley says:

    Hi Simone, you need permission to use any images found on the internet (unless they are in the public domain.) Images from stock agencies are subject to terms and conditions of use as specific by that stock agency.

  14. Lesley says:

    Hi Jane, you may want to do a fair use analysis and see if how your use may be considered fair under the US Copyright Law. A fact sheet on fair use is at

  15. Jay says:

    Hi, do u think it is “fair use” to use a copyrighted image as a small avatar on a Message Board/Forum? And obviously, this avatar would show up every time I make a post on that forum.

    I’ve really been wondering about this.


  16. Dave says:

    What about photographs of famous people downloaded from Internet, digitally manipulated, then repurposed for a creative work to be sold for profit? Example; color photograph of Elvis cropped and turned black and white and used in a collage for a work of art. Would this be considered copyright infringement or fair use?

  17. Cindy Wallace says:

    Would I infringe on copyright laws if I printed now and then a printable page of a superhero for a child to color from these websites promoting free printable coloring images? I’ve searched a while this morning and haven’t found one that answers that question.

  18. Marco says:


    Is it legal to screenshot and then manipulate a logo from – just so it’s a LITTLE BIT different – and then use it for ones company?

    Thank you.

    – Marco

  19. Sara says:

    I want to use some Punch cartoons and the publisher is on a ridiculously tight budget. Of course, all Punch cartoons are under copyright BUT I believe (tho’ not sure hence – this query) that if I were to come across the right magazine and photograph it, I could use it without paying copyright. Does this sound right?

  20. Jordan says:

    If I copy and paste an image of the Mona Lisa into Photoshop and slightly change the color of Lisa in the image, along with the background color, is this copyright infringement? I intend to sell these images. Any help would be much appreciated.

  21. Lesley says:

    Hi Lea, if those images are still protected by copyright then you need permission. If not, then you are good to go!

  22. Lesley says:

    Hi Lorry, you may have bought the images at an estate sale but you did not buy the copyright in the images. You would still need permission to reproduce the images.

  23. simone says:

    hi. do I need to get permission (clear) usage rights for images/stock photos I rip from the net to use on the cover of an album that I plan on selling?

  24. Lesley says:

    Hi Cece, I’m sure this happens a lot. The best proof is in writing. If not in writing, it is difficult to know if the necessary permission has really been obtained.

  25. Jane says:

    I have a question – I work at a youth hostel, and I’m currently putting together a lot of visual material to be used only within the hostel, mostly in the form of signs (this way to your room, the bar is open at 7, things like that). I’m trying to make them as visually pleasing as possible, and I’m tempted to use scanned images as backgrounds and color-fills, in some cases from copyrighted sources (such as children’s books). Is this copyright infringement? The images will only be used on the premises, and are NOT used for any sort of promotional material (such as the website, broschures, etc…). Thanks!

  26. Lea says:

    I work at a small, free community newspaper. We are interested in printing some images from the original Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz books. Is this legal under copywrite laws?

  27. Lorry says:

    Can I use images on slides I bought at an Estate Sale without legal complications. I would reproduce the slides into phots to use in my artwork and sell commercially.

  28. Cece says:

    I work in a photo lab and have questions on what I need to obtain to be able to print photos that are copyrighted. Do I need to obtain documentation, verbal permission, or does an address label sufficient enough on the photo cd?

  29. Lesley says:

    Joel, using an image found online (even on a website with whom you have a business relationship) requires copyright permission (unless there are some facts indicating otherwise.)

  30. Joel says:

    Hi.. I have a question about the copyright of images. I sell e-liquids for electronic cigarettes. My website has more than 120 flavors of the liquids each with an image that is designed to resemble the flavor. For example, one flavor is Watermelon Bubblegum. The image for this product is of a slice of watermelon and a piece of bubblegum. I obtained the image from my distributors website. Recently I was informed I was not allowed to use their image because of copyright laws. However, it is their own product I am advertising and selling. Does my use of their image violate copyright laws or, is there something bigger going on here they’re just not telling me? Any help would be appreciated.

  31. Lesley says:

    Hi Jade, copyright comes into play when reproducing or performing a work. Using pages from a book does not arguably result in a copyright use of the book or pages.

  32. Lesley says:

    Hi Neil, depends on what the laws say in your own country. For instance, in Canada there is a provision for incidental use of works. So if a painting is in the background when photographing a person and it is truly incidental, then you do not need permission.

  33. Lesley says:

    Hi Hans, what do you think? Are you copying an original painting that is still covered by copyright? Or are you just being inspired by a painting or other work?

  34. Lesley says:

    Hi John, check and see what copyright uses you obtained (if any) when you purchased the artists prints. The uses may be limited.

  35. Lesley says:

    Hi Karen, whenever someone asks me if their use is fair use, I cannot specifically reply! Fair use must always be decided by the person using the work. Look at the 4 fair use factors in the US Copyright Act and make that decision for yourself. Each case must be decided on its own according to its specific circumstances.

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