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 similar graphic on plagiarism violations, see the Did I Plagiarize? graphic.
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Note: The image below is not the original image published on July 14, 2014. After receiving feedback about clarity and typos, some adjustments to the graphic were made. Please see the editor’s note below.
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.