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Finding and Using Images: Using Images

Use this guide to help you find images for your art history, studio art, and design courses. (Originally written by Heather Lowe of the Visual Resource Center.)

Using images legally and fairly

Just because you find an image doesn't necessarily mean you can use an image. Under U.S. copyright law, any image maker automatically gets the rights to his or her own image. That means the owners of copyright have the exclusive right to reproduce, perform, and distribute their work. Given these rights it might seem a little scary to use an image in a report, a lecture, or in an online presentation. However, the copyright code does offer some exceptions to these rules, known as Fair Use. The idea behind fair use was to carve out areas where one could use copyrighted materials without permission because the use would be for the greater cultural good. This way, journalists, teachers, critics, and artists would have the opportunity to use these materials in a way that doesn't interfere with the copyright owner's rights.

Fair use isn't black and white. There are no uses of an item that would be guaranteed under the law as "fair." The Fair Use Clause gives us four factors by which we can determine whether or not a use is fair. These are:

  1. Character of the use: Non-profit educational uses are generally considered to be more fair than commercial uses. For example, it might be a fair use to distribute a copy of the cover of Vogue in a fashion design or photo-editing class but it wouldn't be fair to sell posters of that image.
    • For the visual arts, another important consideration is whether a use is transfomative or not; that is, whether the copyrighted work was sufficiently changed to make it into something new.
  2. Nature of the work: Generally the more creative the work, the less fair using it will be. In contrast, use of scientific data or data sets is considered to be more fair because these items can be repeated or discovered through experimentation. For example, using Steve McCurry's photograph from National Geographic of an Afghani girl would be less fair than using the data from a survey of Afghani women.
  3. Amount used: Just like choosing your slice of pie, the larger the portion of a work you use, the less fair that use is. For example, sharing a chapter from a book with your class would be considered more fair than sharing the entire book.
  4. Impact on the market: If the way you use the work doesn't impact the copyright owner's livelihood, then it is considered to be a more fair use. Conversely, if your use does take away from the copyright owner's ability to make a living, your use will be considered less fair.

Deciding whether the use of a work is fair or not is a lot like using a scale. Your use may not be weighted on the side of fair use for each of the four factors, but it might meet enough of the factors to be considered fair. For example, when an art history teacher shows an image in class, he or she must how the entire, creative work. However, the character of the use is educational and the use doesn't negatively impact the market for the work, so this use is generally thought to be fair.

If you decide you can't use an item under the Fair Use Clause, you should seek permission from the owner. 

Always give credit or cite the image! In scholarly settings, you will want to cite the image, and in commercial settings, you will want to use a credit line.

Books on copyright and image use

Subject Guide

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Stacy Magedanz
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