Can I Use that Picture? The Terms, Laws, and Ethics for Using Copyrighted Images

Need to use an image but not sure if you have the legal and ethical right to do so? Understanding the laws for using images can be a bit tricky, especially because there is wiggle room within the laws. And, with the mass distribution of images on the internet, it’s no wonder we’re all asking the the same question over and over again: can I use that picture?

Whether for your business presentation, your school project, or your organization’s brochure, you’ve likely placed in images to make your designs more visually appealing. But did you use the images according to legal and ethical standards?

I created the guide below to help sift through the complexity of it all. The reality is, though, as long as you become familiar with four terms–copyright, fair use, creative commons, and public domain–you’ll have a pretty good idea what you can and can’t do with images. If it’s all new to you, spend most of your time learning the fair use clauses. That’s where the ambiguity in copyright laws exist. As with most laws, the ambiguity is for our benefit, but it sure can make copyright laws fuzzy at times.

My rule above all else? Ask permission to use all images. If in doubt, don’t use the image! For a great resource that gives a more thorough explanation, I invite you to check out The Stinky Ink Shop’s Ultimate Guide to Using Images.

For a similar graphic on plagiarism violations, see the Did I Plagiarize? graphic.

To purchase a 20×30 poster, please visit the online store.

 

Can I Use that Picture? Infographic

Editor’s note: This chart has been designed to clarify the complexities of copyright laws for the basic and regular use of images in general publications and for personal use. However, this chart, in its simplicity, cannot and does not cover all the complex nuances of copyright laws. Those who use this chart are encouraged to do so only as a general guideline. When using images and other communication methods, communicators are responsible for understanding the ethics and legalities of copyright laws, fair use stipulations, creative commons licenses, what is and is not considered public domain, and the social and cultural understandings of plagiarism.

Also, it should be noted that these guidelines reference laws and standards in the USA. Laws and guidelines differ, sometimes significantly, in other countries.

77 thoughts on “Can I Use that Picture? The Terms, Laws, and Ethics for Using Copyrighted Images

  • July 27, 2014 at 8:38 pm
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    Hi There! My first time teaching Intro. to Visual Communication is quickly upon me and I am grateful to have come across your website. Two things: from just reading your graphic above, which is extremely helpful, I assume that I don’t need to ask your permission to use this in my community college class this fall. But, I thought I would ask. And say thanks. Thanks!

    ~Shirley

    Reply
    • July 28, 2014 at 3:50 pm
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      Hi Shirley,

      Great question! You’re right, for educational purposes, it isn’t necessary to ask permission to use images like this one. However, you’ll still always want to be careful of plagiarism issues (remember that plagiarism isn’t always illegal, but it is considered unethical in most academic circles in America). So, to follow best practices, when using an image like this in a presentation or as a handout or on your syllabus, or wherever, it is best if you still cite the source, just like you would for referencing other, non-visual material.

      Good luck with the class! Visual Communication is my favorite course to teach :)

      Reply
    • February 9, 2016 at 10:58 am
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      Nice article. Copy rights are a big issue. I use few images per month and I used to have issues with paying since they offer huge subscriptions. And I used to go on each single page but then I heard for Dashmote bit.ly/1SFz5ak They have different providers and most of the images is free and for some I just pay few euros which is still cool.

      Reply
  • July 29, 2014 at 5:44 pm
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    There are some inaccuracies in the flowchart especially the advice on using an image if the creator has died. Unless the photographer created the image as a work for hire (in which case the newspaper or other venue holds the copyright), the copyright could still be held by the creator’s heirs – up to 70 years after the death of the creator. See http://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-duration.html.

    A good resource for navigating the intricacies of US Copyright law is the Digital Copyright Slider developed by the American Library Association : http://librarycopyright.net/resources/digitalslider/

    Reply
    • July 29, 2014 at 8:45 pm
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      Great point, Thomas! Thanks for the clarification. You’re absolutely right that when someone dies it does not mean that the copyright is lost and the images are open to the public domain. If so, all of Charles Schulz’s Peanut characters would be free game! In the flowchart, it states that you must **be certain** that is impossible to obtain the copyright, like when the creator dies **and no one owns the copyright**. If a legal situation were to arise, you would have to prove that it wasn’t possible for you to obtain the copyright (which would mean that you contacted heirs and relatives).

      As for the 70-year rule, that is actually becoming outdated as well. Laws are changing to allow people and organizations to keep the rights to copyrights even 70 years after a person is dead (think of how this affects Disney products and Beatles paraphernalia , for example).

      Reply
  • July 31, 2014 at 12:57 pm
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    I was so pleased discovering this scheme today. It might be helpfull explaining my colleagues the do’s and dont’s in using images. Question: If my manager will agree with me this might be usefull information on the intranet, do you allow me sharing this scheme on this businessplatform? And is it avilable in other languages as well? We might consider it having translated in the languages spoken at our OPCO’s, to be sure everybody understands the rules very well? And of course w’ll mention your site as the source.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm
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    Thanks Curtis.

    This might sound funny / ironic / snarky but it’s not. It’s a legit question:

    What’s are your feelings on using the image / chart you created and/or the contents there of?

    Would a link back to you / this article be sufficient?

    Thanks again,
    mfs

    Reply
    • August 29, 2014 at 10:53 pm
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      I’m also curious about what your permission/usage/attribution rights are for this graphic? If we wanted to use this in a blog post – may we, or must we first ask permission? (The reason I ask, I came to this by way of it being posted in a MediaBistro GalleyCat blog post).

      Reply
      • August 29, 2014 at 11:13 pm
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        Great question! This is one of those fuzzy areas that typically falls under fair use. If an image like this graphic is posted on a blog (intended to be viewed openly by the public for news and information purposes), you are usually safe to re-post the image for similar news-like purposes on another news site without requesting permission as long as you cite/attribute the source. Online, this means that you should link back to the original author’s cite. This is common practice and it is why you’ll find this graphic re-posted on high-profile sites (like Lifehacker.com) even though they didn’t ask my permission to do so. However, if you intend to use an image for other purposes that benefit you or your company (like including it as a permanent fixture on a website or published in a manual or hung on the wall), you should always obtain permission.

        That being said, fair use is a judgment call. There are no precise right or wrong answers. You should be aware that, technically, the owner of the image owns the copyright and has the ability to sue you, even if you think it is used under fair use. With all that in mind, I freely give you permission to re-post this on your blog :)

        Reply
        • August 30, 2014 at 3:25 am
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          Thanks Curtis! It’s a great graphic and very helpful. I incorporated it into a piece I wrote about some of my favorite free stock photo sites, with some that don’t require attribution and may be used for commercial purposes. I included links back to both the MediaBistro piece where I first saw it and your post here.

          Friday Fixins: 6 Kickass FREE Stock Image Resources – http://www.goodstrongwords.com/friday-fixins-6-kickass-free-stock-photo-resources/

          Reply
        • January 29, 2015 at 8:34 pm
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          May I please print it and hang it on the wall of our office for reference? It’s great! :)

          Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 1:53 pm
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    Thank you for creating this guide, it will go a long way in making clear to people why the images they copy of the internet and send me for a magazine cannot be used.
    There is one thing I’d like to see clarified. If you take a picture yourself and it is your own original idea it still can be that you cannot use it if it contains elements that are covered by related rights or personal rights. For example:
    1. Privacy: if I take a picture that has other people on it they might have cause for prohibiting publication of the picture because it could violate their right of privacy;
    2. Related rights: if I take a picture that has a signature building by an architect as the background and my picture changes the appearance of the building the architect might prohibiting publication, because it violates his artist’s rights.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 3:05 pm
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    Why are there two exit points from the first No? If you go down instead of right to Ask Yourself the Fair Use Questions the graph doesn’t make any sense. I also suggest adding a down arrow below the Ask Yourself the Fair Use Questions blob to make it more clear to advance to the questions.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 3:18 pm
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    One thing that is not addressed is the right of the “subject of” the photo. Folks often think they can use a photo if they (for sample) purchase it on Getty, but their EULA very specifically states it only gives permission from the photographer…. Not the subject. Like the flow chart idea though 😉 Also, to be really specific, you can’t be “inspired by” a (c) work either (re your vector on “did you create it”)

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 4:04 pm
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    At a seminar for librarians working with digital objects, it was *strongly* recommended to us that fair use be the last resort rather than the first. Getting permission is always the most preferable course of action. There are two problems with fair use: the first is that it is always an infringement on another’s copyright, albeit a non-actionable infringement. The second is that it is never automatic: each fair use claim pursued must ultimately be decided by a judge, weighing the relative merits of the specific case and use. That gets messy. It’s better to ask permission first, and only when that falls flat, IF you do your due diligence and determine there is a high probability of prevailing on a fair use claim, do you go that route.

    Reply
    • August 6, 2014 at 8:12 pm
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      Wow, that wasn’t great information. Fair use isn’t infringement. Permission is nice to have, though – it does make everything easier.

      Reply
    • August 9, 2014 at 1:47 pm
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      Actually, yes it is. Fair use is a defense, not an excuse from obtaining permission.

      Reply
    • August 27, 2014 at 1:27 am
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      Fair use, if anything, is subjective, and infringement.
      Hence the “interference” of a judge in implied “fair use” cases brought to court.

      Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 5:00 pm
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    An interesting conundrum just occurred to me. I’d like to share this flowchart with some of my clients. Under what license is the flowchart available? Is it copyrighted? Is it CC? Is it PD? I’d genuinely like to know.

    Thanks,
    Dave

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm
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    The first NO after “did you create the image yourself” has two lines coming out of it which is confusing, and the “Will you be using it for commercial or personal gain?” question has no NO option.
    Also, “purpse” is misspelled in the second fair use question.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 6:35 pm
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    Found a few typos. In the second Fair Use question, it should be “purpose,” not “purpse.” And after “was the picture you created an original idea,” the choices are Yes, No, and Not. I believe the third choice should be “Not Sure.” In the “Yes” box directly under “Ethics” in the title, it should be “brochure,” not “brocure.” There may be other typos that I haven’t found — you might want to run a spell-check.

    I think it would be interesting for you to address the specific question of using clearly copyrighted images in Facebook memes and other “viral” web sites (e.g. Buzzfeed). Does posting something on Facebook count as using the image “sparingly?” Does adding a humorous caption to a still from a movie create a new purpose or meaning? Not that anyone is going to get sued for putting Gene Wilder’s picture on their Facebook feed, but it would be good to know whether it’s legal.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 7:50 pm
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    Wow, There is a lot of completely wrong and misleading information about copyright in this workflow. I’ve been a commercial photographer for over 30 years, I do a lot of lecturing, and writing with a copyright litigator, have been an expert witness in a Federal copyright case, and have sued for infringement myself. Following the “advise” you’re giving here can get people on a lot of trouble. Like using images you find on social media, or being able to usie anything for public interest for news (I can tell you many news organizations that have paid big bucks for running shots they didn’t have permission to use), not to mention orphan works that was already pointed out. I’ll be showing this in my graduate class as an example of bad information on the net.
    Personal or commercial gain is not a factor for infringement, it might be for the determining the damages.
    The 70 years you state is the law, passed by Congress. Its not going to change very easily. It’s lifetime plus 70 years after death, but for a corporation it’s 90 years.
    Copyright is baked right into the Constitution itself, so changes are not that fluid as you imply.

    I commend you for trying to help people with these confusing issue, but frankly, this is a mess.

    Reply
    • August 6, 2014 at 8:41 am
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      Jack is correct. This simply adds to the misinformation about copyright in photographs. Your chart could be much simpler: Did you take the photo? Yes: go ahead – it’s your copyright. No? Do not use it anywhere without the author’s (copyright holder) permission – that would be theft.
      If you want to help people understand the law on copyright, make sure you know exactly what it is. Here in the UK it might have variations over the US – one being that in the US there is a much higher penalty for infringement, whereas the UK law only allows for reasonable compensation as per what would have been charged had permission been sought in the first place. Unless flagrancy is proved. It is a minefield, and image theft is rife, but copyright holders are fighting back.
      http://www.copyrightservice.co.uk/copyright/uk_law_summary

      Reply
      • August 8, 2014 at 11:19 pm
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        In the USA you do NOT need permission to use copyrighted works, including photos, if the use is fair. That’s the point of fair use.

        Reply
        • August 28, 2014 at 10:50 am
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          This is splitting a hair, but it is an important one. Fair use is a *defense* to one’s acknowledged use, without prior permission, of copyrighted material. You’re saying, “Yup, this is a copyrighted photo [or whatever]. But I’m gonna use it anyway, and I’m not asking permission of the copyright holder or anyone else. So there.”

          But here is the deal. Just because YOU think it is “fair use” doesn’t make it so. That is for the courts to decide, and there are reams of decision in legal cases that have examined this concept.

          One uses an item under the fair use theory under risk of being sued for having guessed (or decided) wrongly.

          The infographic author’s admonition to seek permission whenever in doubt is excellent.

          The cool thing is that seeking permission is NOT a big-deal-special-forms-hire-a-lawyer kind of thing. Just send an email! Keep a copy of the reply granting permission …

          Reply
    • August 9, 2014 at 1:58 pm
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      Thank you for writing this, Jack. I, too, am a professional photographer, and writer as well, and I’ve studied copyright during my 20-year career just to ensure I’m always knowledgeable about the issues that affect my business. I saw this posted on a friend’s Facebook page this morning and it made me cringe to see some of these ideas baked into a nice-looking design that people would believe. Like you, I applaud the effort here — the chart looks great, and is a wonderful idea; but I’d like to see it adjusted after some consultation with an intellectual property attorney.

      Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm
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    Love this chart! Wondering if you have this as a poster. It was a little hard to read on the computer due to some of the colored text and having to blow it up so large.

    Thanks.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 8:49 pm
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    Hey Curtis,

    Thanks for this great chart! Would it be OK if we used it in a post on our blog (freelancersunion.org/blog)? Lots of our freelance members (especially photographers, graphic designers) want to be protected from copyright infringement, so we’re trying to spread the message.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 9:02 pm
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    Hi, Appreciate what you’re trying to do here. And maybe you know this, so for your readers who may mistake a few things in your chart…

    There’s a problem with how you’ve portrayed fair use. First of all, it’s not law. It’s doctrine. Meaning, it’s subject to interpretation each and every time a case goes to court. And a copyright owner could sue anyone who infringes on their work any time they want, period. Fair use is not meant to be an easy out for people to use copyrighted work, for any reason. Plus, it’s usually using a portion of the work that will get you “pass” (and if you have more than half the factors in your favor), but that’s not a guarantee. Good info here: http://fairuse.stanford.edu/overview/fair-use/

    In the case of the educator who wants to use something for class… generally speaking, showing it in class might be fair use, but photocopying 100 copies of an entire work every semester for 10 years, probably not. The value of the work is being diminished because the author is losing out on that income.

    Also, if you take a picture of something or someone that is protected by trademark, publicity rights, or privacy rights, you cannot just do whatever you want with it (i.e., use it for commercial purposes). So your “yes” at the top left has to have some caveats.

    I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice :)

    People should start by assuming they have the rights to nothing if they didn’t create it. Get permissions and model/property releases for everyone & everything. Or use licensed, creative commons, or public domain. One generally doesn’t “purchase” an image, one purchases a license to use it in a particular way. One must adhere to the license terms. Even microstock generally has restrictions. As does creative commons. Read the license!

    By the way, the federal government cannot hold copyright, but sometimes copyrighted work is used in government materials, so you still have to be careful.

    Cheers!
    Anne

    (PS: a couple typos in case you want to fix: purpose in red; public in yellow are both missing letters)

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm
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    The guide states that it’s “usually” safe to use an image if it’s just being hung on a wall for personal use. Can you please point me to the specifics of when an image can be used? I recently attempted to order a print of an image downloaded from a website (for personal use at home – to hang on a wall), but was denied because the image was deemed copyrighted material.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 9:40 pm
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    What if you take an image from a blog, but the blog poster doesn’t have the copyright to the original image? Just occurred to me as I’m looking for pictures of small towns to post on a project’s website.

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  • August 5, 2014 at 11:01 pm
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    At our school, we should be above reproach. I try to teach all stakeholders the value of knowing correct procedure in using copyrighted materials. This will be a valuable tool. To that end, may I have permission to print a copy, or at least use a credited copy in a presentation?

    Reply
  • August 5, 2014 at 11:13 pm
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    Your flow chart states that it is OK to copy an image for personal use to hang on your wall. This is not even close to true. For centuries artists have created images for sale: for personal use to hang on your wall. The internet, among other things, is a huge marketplace to sell such works, and the displayed images are supplied only as an example to sell a print or an original. I know that you’re trying to help, but this is exactly the kind of glaring error which furthers ignorance on the subject and can contribute to people being sued.

    Reply
  • August 6, 2014 at 8:47 am
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    There are quite a few typos in the chart and many statements that are not exactly accurate. If you go over to the Petapeixel site and look at the comments you will see what I mean. There is an IP attorney who you may want to talk to regarding the accuracy of your statements.

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  • August 6, 2014 at 12:27 pm
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    You have so many inaccuracies
    on here you are going to get someone seriously in trouble. I would ditch this IMMEDIATELY and contact a lawyer before spreading this, getting yourself involved and possibly in the middle of your own lawsuit.

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  • August 6, 2014 at 4:13 pm
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    Accuracy or inaccuracy of the “Fair Use” section notwithstanding, you might want to add something on there stating that Fair Use is an American Copyright concept, and does not exist in other countries.

    There is no “Fair Use” under English Copyright law, for example. We have “Fair dealing” which is a very different thing.

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  • August 6, 2014 at 5:03 pm
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    If you’re transforming or repurposing an image, that’s derivative work, and will need permission. There are corner cases where this can fall under Fair Use, but that’s not always (or even often) the case.

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  • August 6, 2014 at 6:22 pm
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    Thank you for your attempt to create a “Can I Use that Picture?” infographic. The answer is very simple. If you didn’t take the picture yourself the answer is NO (it doesn’t matter whose camera it is!. You need *permission* from the person who owns the copyright.

    In some reuse applications you may not have to pay a licensing fee but you still need permission. Some copyright owners automatically grant free use to their images and if they do, those usage parameters will be clearly stated where you find the image. However, if you don’t immediately understand that reuse is automatically granted, you need to contact the owner directly with your request.

    For reuse of images you find online, use auto-licensing applications such as Permission Machine. Please be fair to your fellow creators, protect yourself from infringement suits and obtain a legal license!

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    • August 8, 2014 at 11:27 pm
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      This is a radical oversimplification of copyright law. There are many cases where permission is not necessary, starting with fair use and extending to a wide range of other circumstances. Not all photography is copyrighted!

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  • August 6, 2014 at 8:16 pm
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    Lots of responses today, I guess because it’s been shared on some high-profile sites. Several of my friends shared it, too, and the inaccuracies & missing information concerned me enough (especially with all the library folks resharing it uncritically), that I did a more detailed analysis over on my blog (http://z.umn.edu/flowchart2). There is some great stuff here, especially your engagement with the community expectations and ethical points of social media sharing, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone use this for true workflow (personal or at work) management.

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    • August 7, 2014 at 1:08 am
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      Agreed. Before posting something like this, I would check with the best copyright law firm in the country and find out how many glaring errors, bad advice, and other mistakes should have been left off this chart.

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  • August 13, 2014 at 6:57 am
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    Thank you for this Curtis. You’ve certainly provoked some conversations! As a rough guide and to get people thinking about whether they can or can’t use an image, it’s a great tool. Just the headline will, hopefully, make folk stop and think. Well done, and now that you have the “Health Warning”, please keep ’em coming.

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  • August 15, 2014 at 11:09 am
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    I have a huge problem with the part of your flow chart that says it’s alright to print something to hang on your wall. This is immensely fallacious advice. There are a lot of people around the world who made a large part of their income from selling prints of their artwork or photography. It is *not* alright to print their work to put on your wall. Personally, and I think a lot of people would agree with me here, I wouldn’t mind someone printing my work as a thumbnail or small “clipping” to put on a mood board or an inspiration board, which may have been what you meant. But your advice is worded in such a way as it advises the reader that it’s OK to download and print artwork to hang on your wall. It’s most definitely not.

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    • August 15, 2014 at 7:18 pm
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      Tim,

      Thanks for your input! You’re absolutely right: the original wording on the poster was confusing and misleading. After receiving a good deal of input, I have made several modifications to the poster. The issue you addressed has been handled directly. Although “personal use” is stipulated as a component under fair use clauses, simply printing an image to decorate your home or office is a form of theft if you haven’t purchased the image from the original photographer or owner of the copyright. You can see the change made on the new version of the flowchart.

      Reply