Legally Using Images

More and more we are using images to enhance text-based documents, annual reports, Web sites 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.

Mona Lisa in Lego, Legoland Hotel, Denmark

U.S. Copyright Act

Images may be described 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 in libraries is using the images of book covers 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 Web site?  Scanning an image/book cover is a reproduction of a work as is copying that image/cover from a Web site.  Would this be considered fair use?  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.

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 Web sites or blogs that are accessible around the world, you should respect the moral rights of attribution and integrity.


The Image Collection Manager’s Checklist for Fair Use of Images at may assist you in applying fair use to the use of images.  Also helpful is The Fair Use Checklist from Columbia University Libraries through its Copyright Advisory Office at

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Monday, March 15th, 2010 at 21:08
  • Mar 9th, 2011 at 13:45 | #1

    Hello Lesley,
    I was hoping you could help me with a question that’s come up in a story I am working on.
    Is altering a company logo by placing a red circle with a slash through it on top of the original image enough to make it a new image? Can someone then post this altered image on their web site, blog or social networking site without infringing the company’s copyright?
    I will quote you in the article, if I may.
    Thank you in advance for your time.
    Justine Davidson
    Whitehorse Star, Whitehorse, YT

  • Lesley
    Mar 9th, 2011 at 20:03 | #2

    Hi Justine, a logo may be protected by either a trade mark or a copyright, or both. Generally, to adapt a logo you need permission from the owner of the original logo. Whether or not the new adapted logo would be a new trademark or copyright depends on the circumstances and really only a judge in a court of law could make that determination. So, adapting the logo without permission is not permitted nor is posting that logo on a site.

  • Erick Lopez
    Aug 31st, 2011 at 00:14 | #3

    Concerning photographs, I have a professional photograph of a celebrity, in which I edited to just a silhouette. Would I be violating any copyright laws if I were to print the image for profit? And are there any gray areas on editing and reissuing copyrighted images?

  • Lesley
    Aug 31st, 2011 at 20:15 | #4

    Hi Erick, you need permission prior to editing or manipulating an image. Adaptation is the right of the copyright owner of the photograph and in some countries that photographer may also have moral rights which protect against modification of a work that may harm the reputation of the creator.

  • pat
    Nov 13th, 2011 at 22:59 | #5

    We are trying to put together a photo album for my elderly mother. Some of the early shots of her are professional and have the name of the company. Would these still be protected under copyright laws? The person at Wal-Mart says yes and they won’t reproduce them for us. The newest photo in question is 1956.

  • Lesley
    Nov 14th, 2011 at 10:46 | #6

    Hi Pat, good for Wal-Mart for thinking about copyright issues! I am assuming you are based in the U.S. Under the current Copyright Act, duration of copyright is 70 years after the author’s death, however you should read up on duration of copyright issues in general — see the US Copyright Office publication on this issue at

  • Tony parra
    Dec 6th, 2011 at 13:33 | #7


    I want to reproduce a book cover paper sleeve.the original is very deriorated but I think good enought to be idea is to restore the aspect of the original book which is historical and is part of my personal collection. Is this possible without infringing copyright laws?

  • Lesley
    Dec 12th, 2011 at 13:55 | #8

    @Tony parra Hi Tony, reproducing a book cover requires permission from a copyright holder. It may be possible to claim fair use/dealing if you are reproducing the cover for research or private study. In many countries, there are provisions for nonprofit libraries to make reproductions without permissions for purposes of preservation.

  • Mark
    Feb 2nd, 2012 at 11:53 | #9

    I want to use a photo I took of a politician on a birthday cake. The Bakery say’s it’s a copyrighted image, is that correct? What if I were in the picture now who has the rights?

  • wendy
    Feb 8th, 2012 at 14:03 | #10

    What is the law about using images off the web in an artwork?

  • Sally Mayes
    Feb 11th, 2012 at 07:28 | #11

    Hello Lesley,
    I would like to use a painting dated in the late 1800′s as a book cover. Do I need permission of the original artist’s estate, or has it become public domain after such a long time? The story is based on the cover painting as in GIRL WITH THE PEARL EARRING. A copy of this painting could easily be purchased at or other type of online store.

  • Lesley
    Feb 14th, 2012 at 10:23 | #12

    Hi Mark, the bakery is assuming that all images are protected by copyright unless there is reason to believe otherwise. Who took the photo? Who owns the photo? You will need to make these determinations. Copyright relates to ownership of the image – there may be other legal rights involved when photographing individuals.

  • Lesley
    Feb 16th, 2012 at 09:44 | #13

    Hi Wendy, always assume that online images are protected by copyright. If there is information near the image indicating otherwise, then you may have some permission already given. Also investigate if perhaps the image is in the public domain (in which case you do not need permission.) Thumbnail image reuse may also not require permission in all countries.

  • Lesley
    Feb 16th, 2012 at 09:54 | #14

    Hi Sally, copyright expires in a painting 70 years after the painter’s death (this is the U.S. duration.) Once copyright has expired in the U.S., you are free to reproduce or manipulate the painting in any manner. Make sure that you are using the original public domain work and not an adaptation of it. Also, note that the laws vary from country to country – for example, the artist has a perpetual “moral” right in France to prevent changes to his artwork that may harm his reputation.

  • Vlenda
    Mar 20th, 2012 at 11:35 | #15

    I am planning to use some photos I download from the internet (the Carpenter etc) to use in my charity for eating disorder. How can I find out which images are copyrighted and if they are, how do I get permission? Will obtaining permission cost? If so, how much? Thank you, Vlenda

  • Carole
    Mar 22nd, 2012 at 11:52 | #16

    Hello Lesley, I am coming at this from another angle. I want to use a photo of a cabin I leased ten years ago on the cover of my book. It was taken from a distance, and the cabin has since collapsed, so it couldn’t be identified today. The owners never lived there — it was my place for fifteen years, but I wonder if I have the right to use a photo of the place I lived in, but do not or did not own?

  • Lesley
    Mar 27th, 2012 at 14:03 | #17

    Hi Veronica, assume that all photos are protected by copyright unless it is stated otherwise. You will have to investigate the copyright owner and ask for their permission, then negotiate a fee, if applicable.

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