Legally using images in libraries has two perspectives:
- Use of images by library staff and patrons
- Understanding how copyright pertains to images, educating staff and patrons about this, and creating a copyright culture in your library
You may also be interested in our online copyright program that has an entire course dedicated to legally using images.
Are You Legally Using Images in Your Library?
The following are common ways libraries use images where you should consider copyright issues and permissions:
- In presentations and teaching materials
- On library posters and bookmarks
- In bibliographies of books and book covers (see Case Study below)
- Images of book covers for promotional purposes
- In library preservation activities
- In library social media posts
The first step in legally using images in libraries is ensuring library staff understand how copyright applies to images.
What Images Are Protected by Copyright?
Images are popular communication tools in our increasingly visual content-driven world. We use images on websites, social media posts, presentations and teaching materials (both digital and traditional print formats), and promotional materials such as posters for library events.
The U.S. Copyright Act defines images as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works” including:
- Two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art
- Prints and art reproductions
- Technical drawings, including architectural plans
So, illustrations, photographs, charts, cartoons, infographics and the like are all protected by copyright.
Exclusive Rights for Image Owners
Like other works, images are protected by copyright from the moment their creator (author) puts them into a fixed form (e.g., drawn on paper, saved to a computer file or a camera memory card). Always assume any image you wish to use is protected by copyright, whether or not it has a copyright symbol on it, and obtain permission before using it.
Of course, once you undertake your copyright research you may find that the image:
- Is in the public domain
- Has a Creative Commons license
- May fall within fair use
We explain these three concepts below.
Only the owner of copyright in the image has the legal right to do the following:
- Reproduce it
- Distribute copies for sale, rent or lease
- Make new images and other works based on the original image
- Display the image in public
Circumstances that Don’t Require Permission
There are some situations where you don’t need permission to use an image.
An image is in the public domain where its copyright protection has expired or it was never subject to copyright protection in the first place (e.g., a U.S. government work prepared by a government employee and being used in the U.S.). You may use a public domain work without permission or payment. However, be aware that adaptations of public domain works may be subject to copyright protection.
Do your research to determine if the image is in the public domain or not. In the U.S., this isn’t always a straight-forward procedure since the duration of copyright protection and the conditions for copyright protection have changed a number of times. Consult the U.S. Copyright Office for further information on the duration of copyright.
Creative Commons Licensed Images
Many copyright owners choose to license their works through Creative Commons (CC). While you may use an image subject to a CC license without permission, be aware that terms and conditions of use apply to each of the six types of CC licenses.
Fair Use and Images
Under the fair use provisions of the U.S. Copyright Act, you may be able to use an image without permission from its copyright owner if you determine that fair use applies. (Other countries, such as Canada, have similar provisions known as fair dealing.)
Fair use is a complex and deliberately ambiguous principle of law. Each case must be assessed according to the specific facts of the situation and with regard to the four fair use factors. The final arbiter of whether fair use applies is a judge in a court of law.
Some organizations are averse to the risk involved in applying fair use, and may prohibit or limit its use. Ensure you know your organization’s stance on fair use, which may be part of its copyright policy or guidelines. See our Simple Guide to Fair Use, which includes a downloadable tip sheet.
Search Engines and Images
Many think that images they find through an online search are free for the taking. The images they provide in response to the criteria in any search may be subject to copyright protection. Always take the steps required to ensure that an image may be used without permission; otherwise, obtain permission or don’t use it.
Educating Library Staff
Providing awareness and education to library and enterprise staff is an important way to support legally using images in libraries and avoid copyright infringement. There are a variety of formal and informal ways you can make copyright awareness part of your culture:
- Appoint a copyright leader who acts as a go-to person for copyright questions
- Send key staff to copyright seminars and ask them to share their learnings with others
- Establish and maintain a current collection of copyright resources in digital and/or traditional formats
- Schedule copyright Q&A sessions throughout your library and enterprise
See A Simple Guide to Copyright for Librarians before educating your library staff about important copyright and licensing issues.
Educating Library Patrons
Don’t forget about educating non-staff such as external researchers or members of the public. The following are some ideas to encourage them to legally use images:
- Provide a copyright information statement as part of the process to log onto library computers
- Place copyright information posters at computer workstations and photocopiers
- Provide resources specifically about how copyright applies to images found through online searches
- Offer consultations and presentations on copyright literacy and particularly legally using images
Case Study on Applying Copyright Principles: Using Book Covers
Libraries commonly use 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?
- Can you save a copy of the cover from the publisher’s website?
Scanning a book cover is a reproduction of a work, as is copying that cover image from a website. However, before obtaining permission you may choose to do a fair use analysis.
Under the U.S. Copyright Act, the fair use provision is always a determination you make based on the circumstances in any individual situation. Thus, you have to analyze the particulars of your use of book covers, and determine whether and how each of the four fair use factors relates to your use. Then you need to make a judgment call as to whether fair use applies to your use of that image or images.
Many organizations are comfortable applying fair use, whereas others want to be 100 percent sure their uses are within the law. If your library or enterprise fits into 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 for permission.
For a deeper understanding of this topic, consider our online course Legally Using Images.
For an in-depth understanding of U.S. and global copyright principles, plus practical tools and strategies you can customize to your particular circumstances,
see our fully online Copyright Leadership Certificate program.