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Finding and Using Images: Images and Copyright

Tips for finding images for research and creative projects

Images and Copyright

Whether images come from the Internet, a database, or other resources, it's your responsibility to determine when, where, and how they may be legally and ethically used.

Use this page to learn about these topics:

Disclosure: This guide is not professional legal counsel. For in-depth assistance, please consult a legal authority.

SCAD's Copyright Policies

SCAD's copyright policies can be found in the student, staff and faculty handbooks (located in MySCAD) and are also cross linked on the SCAD website below.

SCAD's Image Databases and Copyright

Are you using images from databases such as ARTstor or the Digital Image Database? Additional permissions may be needed to use images in...

  • Open, non-password protected websites
  • Published journal articles or books, whether printed or online
  • Creative or commercial applications

When in doubt, review restrictions on the database's website, or contact visual resources or library staff for assistance.

Determining Copyright Status

These free tools can help you determine copyright status and/or appropriate use of a specific work.

Resources for Artists and Researchers

Further Reading on Copyright and Images

What is Copyright?

The purpose of copyright is to promote progress in the arts and sciences by protecting original works. When a work is copyrighted, the copyright holder has a temporary monopoly to control how that work is used and distributed. Written works, music, video and images (among other works) may be protected by copyright.

Under current U.S. law, new copyrighted works are protected for the life of the author/creator plus an additional 70 years. The place and year in which works are created affects the extent to which they are protected by copyright.

Copyright law also allows for fair use of copyrighted works by some entitles and in some circumstances. Further, authors/creators may choose to grant permission for others to use their works under certain conditions; for example, through the application of Creative Commons licenses.

What is Public Domain?

Haeckel - thuriodea

Public Domain works are not protected by copyright law, therefore, they may be legally used without permission.

A work may enter the public domain when its copyright protection expires, if it fails to meet requirements for copyright protection, if it predates copyright law, if the author chooses to release it to the public domain, or other reasons.

Just because a work is easily accessible online, does not mean it's in the public domain. Images can still be protected by copyright, even if a creator or © is not clearly stated. That said, true public domain works can be found online. See the "images for creative use" tab for recommended sources, or review the resources listed below.

Public domain image by Ernst Haeckel via wikimedia commons

What is Fair Use?

According to, "Fair use provides parameters for the legal use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder... Broadly speaking, a "fair use" is one where the socially beneficial results of the use outweigh the exclusive rights of the copyright holder."

Use of copyrighted work is considered "fair" only under certain circumstances. Four factors are considered when determining fair use:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is commercial or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount used in relation to the work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for the copyrighted work

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools.

Creators can use Creative Commons' copyright licenses to give the public permission to share and use their work — changing the default from “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved.” You can also use others' Creative Commons licensed works in various ways, depending on the license: re-share as-is; adapt or modify; and/or use for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

When re-using a CC work, review the license to ensure your intended use falls within allowed guidelines.