By Shana R. Spindler, PhD, with research by Nichole Swan
After an extensive search through Google images, you find the perfect cartoon graphic of DNA for your conference presentation. You don’t see any copyright marks on it (you know, that little © that appears on some images and websites), so you’re in the clear to use it, right?
Even if an image does not explicitly state a copyright, you could still be committing copyright infringement if you use it without permission or payment. So what is a copyright anyway, and what does it protect?
According to the United States Copyright Office, “copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression.”1 In non-legalese: if you make it, you own it. Both published and unpublished works, such as photography, video, literature, computer software, music, and architecture, fall under copyright protection at the moment they are created—no special markings or symbols required. While copyright protection does not apply to ideas or discoveries, which require a patent, the tangible way ideas are expressed (like an artistic diagram) may be copyrighted.
Surprised? You’re not alone. Today, the Internet is rampant with copyright infringement. It’s no wonder why someone who doesn’t know much about copyright law might be confused. Don’t worry; we’ll wait while you take down all of those copyrighted images from your blog…
All done? Great, let’s continue.
Using copyrighted images
If you find an unmarked image online that you’d like to use, it’s best to track down the actual source of the image. Do not—and this is worth repeating—do not risk copyright infringement by selecting “save image as” to use the content in your work. If you can’t find the person who created the image, skip it and look elsewhere. Once you’ve tracked down the image source, you may need to pay for the image or request permission to use it.
But what about photographers, illustrators, musicians, etc., who want to provide their content for free with certain restrictions? How can they avoid spending hours creating licenses or responding to permission requests? The Creative Commons license is an elegant solution to this problem.
Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creative content sharing through free legal tools, was founded in 2001. By 2002, it released its first set of free copyright licenses.2 A Creative Commons license allows content creators to supplement their copyright with a legal way to offer their work with “some rights reserved.” When you see a Creative Commons license associated with a creative work, you will quickly know how, where, and to what extent you can use that content. Some of the most popular sites to incorporate Creative Commons licensing include Flickr, Google, Public Library of Science, Wikipedia, and the NIH 3D Print Exchange, but the list goes on.3
Here are two examples of a Creative Commons license button:
Each assembly of icons represents what a user can or cannot do with a creative work. In the first example, the license indicates that the content creator would like to receive credit for the work, but otherwise the user is free to use or modify the content for personal, commercial, or not-for-profit (as is the case for government) redistribution. In the second example, the license indicates the content user must give credit, cannot use the content for a commercial use, and must not make any changes to the content before redistribution. All Creative Commons license descriptions—there are several—can be found on the Creative Commons website.
For individuals who would like to waive all rights to their work, they can enter their creative content into the public domain. When you see that something is in the public domain, you are free to use the work for commercial or personal use, without attribution, and without restriction. In general, content in the public domain is the safest type of content to use without worrying about copyright infringement. But don’t assume that you can copy the work of something in the public domain and present it as your own. That would be plagiarism—something for another article entirely.
Other works contained in the public domain include those with expired copyright (in general, the life of the author plus 70 years) and works of the United States Government (we already paid for it with our taxes, right?). Even if a work meets one of these criteria, never assume a copyright is expired or absent. Some older works may stay under copyright, and different countries have their own copyright regulations. It’s best to assume EVERYTHING is under copyright until you know with certainty that it’s not.
But, but, I didn’t know it was copyrighted
Please note: ignorance doesn’t hold up in court on this one. Do a quick Internet search and you’ll find several examples of bloggers and small companies who were sued for copyright infringement because they unintentionally posted a copyrighted image. You are financially liable for copyright infringement even if the infringement was by accident, quickly remedied, done with or without modification to the original content, results in no commercial income, or even if you linked back to the original source and cited the content creator!
There are, however, some exceptions to the rule—but this is where it gets tricky. Under “fair use” doctrine, the United States Copyright Office states that copyrighted material may be used for “various purposes for which the reproduction of a particular work may be considered fair, such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.4” However, the Copyright Office also states that “the distinction between what is fair use and what is infringement in a particular case will not always be clear or easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.”4
In the research and academic setting, you’ll likely come across situations where fair use rules allow you to use copyrighted material without permission. For example, if you are teaching a class and would like to show a figure from a published paper for learning purposes, you are allowed to do so—just be sure to include proper citations. But even with “fair use” doctrine, you should request permission before using copyrighted material if you have any doubts. Why take the chance?
How to find online media you can use
If you are looking for free online images, one good place to start is with a search filter. Google, for example, has an advanced search filter called “usage rights.” In the “usage rights” drop down menu, you will find several options, including:
- Not filtered by license
- Free to use or share
- Free to use or share, even commercially
- Free to use, share, or modify
- Free to use, share, or modify, even commercially
Your image results will only return content that matches your selected criteria. Always verify the usage license for any image before reusing it and be sure to give proper attribution when required.
Stock image sites are another valuable source for online content. Use your favorite search engine to type the keywords: “stock image site” or “stock image sites public domain” and browse away. If you go to the front page of The NICHD Connection, you’ll find stock photo website attribution at the end of the table of contents menu. Each website has unique licensing terms that must be followed carefully. Don’t assume every image is free to use.
If you have additional questions about using images or other creative media in your publications and presentations, please contact Nichole Swan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: This article in no way substitutes for legal information or advice.
- “Copyright in General.” United States Copyright Office. Accessed 27 January 2015. http://copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#automatic
- “History.” Creative Commons. Accessed 27 January 2015. http://creativecommons.org/about/history
- “Who Uses CC?” Creative Commons. Accessed 27 January 2015. http://creativecommons.org/who-uses-cc
- “Fair Use” United States Copyright Office. Accessed 27 January 2015. http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html