Copyright and Images / visual works

Copyright law protects images as stand-alone artistic works and that covers any work in a visual medium. This includes:

  • paintings, drawings, sketches, book jackets, magazine covers, illustrations, cartoons, engravings;
  • digital images, graphical images, screenshots, multi-media art, some 3D printed works;
  • maps, surveys, land use plans; architectural plans; designs
  • charts, figures, graphs;
  • photographs, movie stills;
  • sculptures, architectural models and other artistic works of craftsmanship;
  • and more….

How can I use images without breaking copyright?

  1. Are you the copyright holder of the image?
    • If you are the copyright holder, you can use the image as you wish.
    • When you create your own, original images you usually own the copyright.
    • The image you create has to be original. It is not enough to make a direct copy.
    • If you make the image as part of your job, you may not own the copyright.
  2. Is the image in the Public Domain?
    • Copyright is temporary – once the term of copyright protection is over, works belong to the public domain. This means they can be used without requiring permission or payment.
    • Usually copyright lasts for 50 years after the death of the creator.
    • It isn’t always easy to identify if something is in the public domain. Photographs are particularly convoluted. This Canadian Public Domain flowchart is helpful, but email if you need help.
    • Fine arts images can be difficult – Museums and artists’ estates may charge high fees to provide a high-resolution digital image of works in their collections even if they are in the pubic domain. Read Permissions: a Survival Guide or contact if you need more information about this phenomenon.
  3. Is the image covered by a license that allows my use?
    • Image copyright holders may allow people to use their images under certain conditions described in a license.
    • Creative Commons Licenses, and Wikimedia licenses are examples that allow use without permissions or cost. Other websites will offer licenses for a fee, and often with other limitations as to their use.
    • Carleton library subscribes to many databases that allow students and faculty to use images for educational purposes, but permissions on specific images should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
    • Government of Canada allows use of many of its publications and images under a license that allows for personal or non-commercial use.
    • United States government publications are all in the public domain.
  4. Exceptions in the Copyright Act
    • There are a number of exceptions in the copyright including Fair Dealing that allow the use of images or other copyrighted materials without asking permission under certain circumstances.
    • For details on how these exceptions relate to teaching see:

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