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Using Images: Copyright & Fair Use: Using Images

This guide will introduce the concept of "Fair Use', assist with finding open content for images on the web and touch on the concept of "fair use"

Why Copyright and Citation Matter

Properly citing sources protects against plagiarism.

Following fair use principles protects against copyright infringement.

  • Copyright infringement can occur when using someone else's copyrighted work without permission or without a solid fair use case, and is a legal matter handled by the courts.

To make a fair use assessment:

Fair Use Explained

What is Fair Use?


Fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law allow use of copyrighted materials on a limited basis for specific purposes without the permission of the copyright holder.

Is my use fair? -- The four factor test:

Purpose of use Nonprofit, educational, scholarly or research use; Transformative use: repurposing, recontextualizing, creating a new purpose or meaning
Nature or type of work Published, fact-based content
Amount Used Using only the amount needed for a given purpose; Using small or less significant amounts
Market Effect

If there would be no effect, or it is not possible to obtain permission to use the work


It is necessary to weigh all four factors to decide whether a fair use exemption seems to apply to a proposed reuse. Courts take a holistic approach -- they do not simply add up a positive or negative for each factor.

Judges have tended to focus on two questions that collapse the four factors:

  • Does the use transform the material, by using it for a different purpose?
  • Was the amount taken appropriate to the new purpose?

To help support a fair use case for an image:

  • Use lower resolution or thumbnail versions where possible;
  • Place the image in a new context or use it for a new purpose; and
  • Use only the parts of the image needed for the purpose

In addition to fair use, consider Using images that are openly available for reuse

Special Considerations for Images

Photographs of people may involve rights of privacy or publicity, state and/or federal laws which limit the use of a person's likeness.  Consider:

  • Using photographs of people taken in larger public scenes
  • Avoiding photographs of famous people, or people engaging in private activities
  • Being aware that Publicity rights limit commercial uses

Photographs of works of art may involve the rights of the work's creator/copyright holder. Consider:

  • Using photographs of 2-D public domain works -- these are usually not protected by copyright

Buildings designed after Dec. 1, 1990 are copyrighted. Consider:

  • Using photographs taken from a public place

Ask the expert

Need help with copyright questions?

Ellen Duranceau  Ellen Duranceau

Fair Use Overview

Fair Use Quiz