General Information

Images of artifacts found on the Internet, in a database, or in printed books might be protected by copyright and should not be reproduced indiscriminately even if the originals that are depicted are clearly in the public domain (e.g., a 15th-century painting or a 17th-century printing of a poem).  Copyright of the images might be owned by the repository that hired the photographer (depending on the degree of originality), and professional courtesy may require that reproduction rights be requested in any case.  Museums and other repositories of unique artifacts typically set special conditions for the reproduction of images of the objects they own.  These repositories have an interest in assuring that copyright (if any) is respected, reproductions are faithful, and objects are accurately described.  In addition, reproduction fees often provide a source of revenue.

Researchers who wish to publish an image of an object from a museum, archive, or library should request permission from the repository. (See a sample letter)  Although guidelines vary from one repository to another, they usually specify how details or close-ups from the original may be handled, what kinds of changes in the image or its color are permitted, and how the item should be cited.

Works of the Visual Arts

Copyright protects original “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works,” which include two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art.  The following is a list of examples of such works:

  • Advertisements, commercial prints, labels
  • Artificial flowers and plants
  • Artwork applied to clothing or to other useful articles
  • Bumper stickers, decals, stickers
  • Cartographic works, such as maps, globes, relief models
  • Cartoons and comic strips
  • Collages
  • Dolls, toys
  • Drawing, painting, murals
  • Enamel works
  • Fabric, floor, and wallcovering designs
  • Games, puzzles,
  • Greeting cards, postcards, stationery
  • Holograms, computer and laser artwork
  • Jewelry designs
  • Models
  • Mosaics
  • Needlework and craft kits
  • Original prints, such as engravings, etchings, serigraphs, silk screen prints, woodblock prints
  • Patterns for sewing, knitting, crocheting, needlework
  • Photographs, photomontages
  • Posters
  • Record jacket, CD label artwork or photography
  • Relief and intaglio prints
  • Reproductions, such as lithographs, collotypes
  • Sculpture
  • Stained glass designs
  • Stencils, cut-outs
  • Technical drawings, architectural drawings or plans, blueprints, mechanical drawings
  • Weaving designs, lace designs, tapestries

Not Protected by Copyright Law

  • Ideas, concepts, discoveries, principles
  • Formulas, processes, systems, methods, procedures
  •  Words or short phrases, such as names, titles, and slogans
  • Familiar designs or symbols
  • Mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring

Types of Rights for Images

At least three forms of rights might apply to artifacts and works of art. 

  • A repository (or private collector) might own the object (manuscript, painting, artifact) and control the conditions under which original photographs of it may be taken. 
  • A photographer (or his/her employer) might own the copyright to a photographed image of the original object, even if the object is in the public domain, if the photograph embodies a sufficient degree of originality.  Copyright protection is more likely to apply to photographs of three-dimensional objects (sculptures and buildings, for example) than to two-dimensional works like paintings or drawings.
  • An artist or other creator might own the copyright to the original work  “fixed” in the object.

Locating the Copyright Owner

Locating the owner of copyright or other reproduction rights – whether textual or visual – is not always straightforward.  Researchers who need an image of an artifact or artwork to illustrate a publication or public lecture should start with the repository that owns the object.  Other resources for locating rights holders include:

  •  The Artists Rights Society, a copyright, licensing, and monitoring organization for visual artists in the U.S.  It represents the intellectual property rights interests of over 30,000 visual artists (painters, sculptors, photographers, architects and others) and estates of visual artists from around the world.
  • The Copyright Clearance Center, which manages the rights to over 1.75 million works and represents more than 9,600 publishers and hundreds of thousands of authors and other creators.
  • The WATCH File (Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders), a database containing the names and addresses of copyright holders or contact persons for authors and artists whose archives are housed in libraries and archives in North America and the United Kingdom.

Registering your own image with the U.S. Copyright Office

If you choose to register a claim in your work, package together the following materials in the same envelope to the Library of Congress, Copyright Office, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC  20559-6000:

Building an image collection for educational purposes


Acquisition of visual resources falls into three categories: purchase and license, donation, and copystand photography.

  • Purchase, license, or otherwise legally acquire, the following in developing permanent archives of images:
  • slides or digital files from museums, galleries or other such institutions
  • slide or digital files from vendors and image providers
  • original on-site photography produced for sale by professional or highly skilled photographers
  • slides or digital files distributed on a free-use basis through recognized educational or professional institutions, organizations and consortia
  • Gift and donations are considered legitimate forms of acquisition, even though they may be subject to restrictions or requirements by the donors.  It is recommended that donors of original photographic images in whatever form be encouraged to grant in writing to the recipient institution discretionary rights over extended use, as well as physical custody, of the photographic materials.
  • Images created by copystand photography and scanning from published materials for inclusion in the permanent archive are subject to the following considerations:
  • images of suitable quality are not readily available at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time from any of the options listed above
  • images will not be shared between or among other educational institutions if such use is prohibited by the terms of their acquisition
  • images will be used for comment, criticism, review, analysis, discussion, or other similar purpose associated with instruction or scholarship
  • images will be used for purposes that are both nonprofit and educational
  • if these conditions can be met, it is likely that making images and digital files from published materials will be within “fair use.”


To the extent that such information is available, it is recommended that all images acquired for the permanent archive of an educational institution should be identified with the following:

  • source of image
  • year of acquisition
  •  if licensed, the provider’s inventory or identifying number or code


While the traditional means of display for such image archives have been through projection, or otherwise viewing the physical surrogate (photograph, slide, video, film), the introduction of new technologies, specifically the digital environment of the Internet has expanded the display options.  There is little in the way of legal precedent, code, or case law which addresses the issues particular to educational image archives.  However, it seems reasonable to expect that digital materials should be available to the same user group that the analog collection serves, for the same purposes. 

Analog materials acquired as outlined above may be used in digital format as follows:

  • Images purchased or licensed are subject to the conditions specified at the time of purchase or according to license agreement.
  • Gifts and donations are subject to restrictions made at the time of contribution.  In addition,a  gift of images purchased by the donor may be subject to the conditions of the original purchase.
  • mages made by copystand photography may be digitized and used digitally according to the same criteria under which they were originally acquired for analog use.

Public Domain, Creative Commons, and Royalty Free Images

Below are links to various online image databases and collections, many of which contain free images.  Note, that some of these collections may contain images that require payment to use.  This will be clear on their site, if this is the case.  In addition to the list below, you may use images posted on any federal government website or publication free of charge at any time.

Academic Image Collections

General Image Collections

Frequently Asked Questions

I often use Google to find images for projects.  Can I use any pictures that show up? Are they free?

When you search for an image on Google, the results that appear reference images on websites (which reside on individual websites, and not part of any Google image collection). The images identified by the Google Image Search service may be protected by copyrights, and you must assume that it is. Although you can locate and access the images through Google, they cannot grant you any rights to use them for any purpose other than viewing them on the web. Accordingly, if you would like to use any images you have found through Google, you must contact the site owner to obtain the requisite permissions. 

When is it OK to Use Images from the Internet?

When searching the Internet, you should always assume that any image you come across is copyrighted, unless stated otherwise underneath the image or on the web site.  Most web sites provide detailed information and guidelines for the use of images contained on the site.  If an image is labeled as being in the "public domain" then it is available for public use.  Many websites also allow use of images for non-commercial or educational purposes only.  It is your responsibility to follow the guidelines for use of images from individual web sites.

How do I know if an image I find on the web is copyrighted?

  • First, assume the image is copyrighted. Much of what you find on the web is copyrighted by someone, either the author or a subsequent owner.
  • Look for the copyright notice (the little c in a circle, with the date and owner indicated). That is good evidence of copyright, but the absence of the notice does not mean no copyright is asserted. Prior to 1978, a notice had to be included, but, thereafter, for the most part, it is not.
  • If the author, as opposed to simply the owner, of the copyright is the federal government, the work is in the public domain. Be careful, though, because some images are derivative works with public domain works imbedded. These could well be copyrighted by the second author.
  • Consider the age of the image. If it was published before 1923, it is now in the public domain. If it was published after that, there are more complex rules to follow (see )
  • Try to ask the website owner.

What do I do if I can't find the original owner of an image (or they do not respond to my requests)?

Unfortunately, if you have determined that the image is still under copyright, you must either get permission to use the image or try to fit your use under the “fair use” exception to the Copyright Act. Copyright owners are allowed to be stingy and even rude about granting permissions—if you need permission, you have to get it. Because copyright in a work survives the author, the author might even be dead by the time you want to use the work. Sometimes, the author's estate will set up a mechanism to grant permissions and collect royalties, so be sure to check for that, as well.

Do I have to delete old presentations that I made before I knew about these guidelines?

If your old presentations contain any copyrighted images or other works and your use of them infringes on the copyrights (that is, your use is not “fair”), then you may not continue to publish, distribute, display or otherwise use it in an infringing way. You might not need to delete it, but you can't use it very effectively either. Your ignorance of the copyright or of the law in this case does not excuse the infringing use, but it might reduce the penalties a court could assess against you. If you have such a presentation that you wish to continue using, consider obtaining the needed permissions now.

What if I need something for lecture in 24 hours and I don't have time to get permission to use an image?

True emergencies can sometimes excuse a use that would otherwise be deemed an infringement. This emergency use, though, is premised on the inability or impracticality of obtaining permission in time for the intended use. Of course, once the emergency has subsided, you cannot continue to use the work in an infringing manner. If permission is required to use the work, you will need to obtain it to use the work again.

Is the image you wish to digitize readily available online or for sale or license at a fair price?

  • If YES: point to, purchase, or license the image.  Do not digitize it, unless you are in the process of negotiating a license.  If you have a “contract pending,” digitize and use the image until the license is finalized, and you have received the licensed digital image.
  • If NO:  digitize and use the image with the following limitations:
    • limit access to all images, except small, low resolution “thumbnails” to students enrolled in the class (and administrative staff, as needed).
    • Terminate access at the end of the class term.

Web Resources for Finding Images