Fair Use, Copyright, and Images: FAQ

Are images I find on the web copyrighted?

Generally, yes. Some images may no longer be copyrighted, such as images that are:
Created prior to 1923 , or
• US Government works, or
• Explicitly placed in public domain by owner (not a common occurrence)

How can I tell if something is copyrighted?

Works are copyrighted by their creators as soon as put in a tangible form, even if the creator doesn’t add any special labels or identifiers to the work. While some images may be marked with , or “all rights reserved,” and offer the creator’s name, these elements are not required in order for an image to be copyrighted.
For this reason, it is appropriate to assume that an image found on the web is copyrighted, even if it is not labeled or identified, unless it falls into one of the categories above.

You may also need to consider that there could be multiple copyright owners for images: photographs of works of art may involve the rights of the art work’s creator/copyright holder as well as those of the photographer.

How can I appropriately use images from the web or other sources?

Copyright law is about copying – but copyright is actually a bundle of five rights that includes copying, adapting, or sharing someone else’s work. To do any of these things, you need permission, unless fair use (or another exception under copyright law) applies. To examine whether fair use applies, use a 4-factor test that is written into the copyright law:

There are no black and white rules; fair use assessments by the courts involve a holistic assessment of all four factors — so just because your use is educational under the first factor, it is not necessarily fair use.

Is there a simplifying “bottom line” for fair use?

In a sense, there is. Recent court cases have emphasized 2 key questions:
• Does the use transform the material, by using it for a different purpose?
• Was the amount taken appropriate to the new purpose? (Did you only take the amount you needed for your purpose?)

If you can answer a clear ‘yes’ to both questions, you generally should have a strong fair use case.

How can I improve a fair use case for an image?

• Place the image in a new context or use it for a new purpose
• Use lower resolution or thumbnail versions where possible
• Use only the parts of the image needed for the purpose
• Use photographs of 2-D public domain works (like a painting), which are usually not protected by copyright
• Use photographs of buildings taken from a public place (buildings designed after Dec. 1, 1990 are copyrighted)

Are copyright and fair use all I have to worry about?

Unfortunately, no. Many image sites will have “Terms of Use” posted. You need to assume that these rules are enforceable. The terms may be more restrictive than fair use, so it is important to read them and abide by them.

Additional laws may apply to photographs of people. Rights of privacy or publicity, which are state and/or federal laws, limit the use of a person’s likeness. To avoid any problems:

• Use photographs of people taken in larger public scenes, and avoid photographs of famous people, or people engaging in private activities

Are there any images I don’t need to worry about using?

Yes. To find images you can use without a fair use case or asking permission:
• Search Creative Commons – use “Find CC Licensed works”
• Use Google Advanced Image Search and look for “usage rights” limit – filter by “free to use or share”
• Use images created by the US government (.gov), which are generally, though not always, in the public domain (See e.g. http://www.nasa.gov), and read the terms of use to verify status of content
• Use a site devoted to public domain works

Does MIT have some images especially for the MIT community to use?

Yes. To find images the Libraries have licensed for use at MIT (not necessarily shareable beyond MIT), see http://libguides.mit.edu/findingimages. Be sure to check the rules of use at these sites. Examples include: ARTstor and Credo Reference.

Why should I bother to cite images I use – since on the web no one seems to?

Citing your source is critical to avoid plagiarism – using someone else’s work without giving them credit — which is a serious form of academic dishonesty. Citing your source, however, is not enough to protect you from the legal issue of copyright infringement.

How should I cite images?

Citations can be formatted according to the citation style you are using (e.g. MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style).

Include as much of the following in your citation as can be easily determined from the source:
• creator’s name (e.g. the photographer)
• title of the work
• location of the work (museum, library or owning institution if known)
• date work was created
• copyright owner, if known (please note, this may not be the original creator)
• source – where you found the image

Where can I go with more questions?

You can email copyright-lib@mit.edu.

Or try the self-teaching MIT Libraries’ Fair Use Web-based quiz