Copyright Law and the Use of Images Found Online


Subject Matter of Copyright

There are many times when people see an image online that they like. They save the image and either they use it on their website or use it in another manner.  The Internet can sometimes appear to be the wild-west when it comes to intellectual property.  People are often unaware that that copy and paste are not permissible.


“COPYRIGHT” by herine_almad is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Copyright protection under the laws of the United States gives the owner of the copyrighted work several rights.  These rights are the right to reproduce the work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies of the copyrighted work, and to perform or to display the work publicly.  Protection applies to “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed.  Works of authorship include the following categories:

  • Literary works (this would include a computer program);
  • Musical works, including accompanying words;
  • Dramatic works, including accompanying music;
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works;
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural work;
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
  • Sound recordings;
  • Architectural works

Compilations and Derivative Works

The US Copyright Act of the United States extends protections to compilations and derivative works. When a derivative work is created from the original work, the author of the derivative work must be careful.  This is because the law requires the derivative work to be made from a work in which the preexisting work was used unlawfully.  In addition, the copyright in a derivative work only applies to the material contributed by the author.

How do you get a Copyright?

Many people are under the false impression that you have to register a work to obtain a copyright.  This is not true.  You do not need to make any filing to receive copyright protection.  This is because copyright protection applies when the original work of authorship was created and it is automatic.

Using Online Photos

Generally speaking, assume you are prohibited from using an image on the Internet. For you to use the image, the consent of the author will be required.  You do not need the consent of the author if the image is in the public domain.  The work is no longer protected by copyright if it is in the Public Domain.  Do not make the mistake of using copyrighted works and giving credit to the author and think you are protected from a copyright infringement claim.  You are not.  You must have permission from the author to use the work.

Creative Commons Licenses

Obtain a free creative commons license to use the work as a way of using an image or work that is copyrighted.  If you are using an image through a creative commons license, be sure to comply with the terms of the license.  Creative Commons licenses require giving appropriate credit to the author.  There are several types of creative commons licenses, with more or less flexibility.

Other Methods of legally using Copyrighted Work

If an image or work that you would like to use is not in the public domain and you cannot obtain a creative commons license, don’t give up.  There is a multitude of web sites out there that offer images based on differently priced plans.  Some will give you a free trial of ten images and then you can cancel.  Many will have you pay a fee and you are entitled to a certain number of images.  You can also do some research to find the author of an image and try to get a license to use the image.  Be sure to follow all the terms of the license if you are able to get one.  Another alternative is to search Creative Commons for images.


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