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Copyright Resource Guide: Images & Copyright

Image Copyright and Ethical Use

Digital images are electronic resources that need to be used responsibly and with an awareness of copyright and ethical use best practices. Most databases and web sites provide information about how their images can be used. It is important to read this information carefully, and comply with all usage guidelines. Usage guidelines can vary considerably, so be alert to differences and details.

The UW Libraries outlines some general dos and don'ts for electronic resources. Please see Responsible Use of Electronic Resources.

The UW Copyright Connection provides information about many aspects of copyright, including Compilations, Music and Images and Images of Art and People.

Appropriate Use of UW Resources is published by UW Information Technology and provides additional copyright information and guidelines for using electronic resources.

Brief Definitions

You may encounter the below terms in your efforts to use images ethically and legally. Brief definitions and links to more information are included here.

Intellectual property

Creative products and results of intellectual work, including designs, images, symbols, art, and architecture.

For more information:

World Intellectual Property Organization


Legal right of creators to control how their works are used by others. Images may be subject to multiple copyright claims, inclucing claims by artists, photographers, designers, institutions, corporations, or others.  

For more information:

UW Copyright Connection

Copyright Term

The period of time a work is covered by copyright. The copyright term is limited by copyright law.

For more information:

Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States (Cornell University)

Public Domain

When a work is not covered by copyright (because the copyright term has expired, the creator has released the work, or the work was never copyrighted) it is in the public domain. The public then holds the rights to the work.

For more information:

UW Copyright Connection - Images of Art and People

Fair Use

A provision in copyright law that allows for the use of copyrighted works under some specific circumstances and for particular purposes such as criticism, comment, scholarship, or research. Fair use is determined by the following four factors (from Chapter 1, Section 107 of the Copyright Law):

  • the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  • the nature of the copyrighted work
  • the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work

To help you determine if your use is a "fair use," consult one of the fair-use checklists in the box to the right.

For more information:

UW Copyright Connection - Fair Use

Open Access

"Free and unrestricted online availability," according to the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Open Access images are typically images that archives, libraries, museums, or copyright holders have chosen to make available online without restrictions on distribution or reuse. 

For more information:

UW Libraries Open Access FAQ

License agreements

Contracts between the UW Libraries and digital content providers that determine how the content can be accessed and used. License agreements are often more restrictive than copyright or fair use laws, and override these other provisions. Terms of Use typically describe how users may use particular databases or resources. An example is ARTstor's Terms and Conditions of Use.

For more information:

UW Libraries' Responsible Use of Electronic Resources

More definitions

US Copyright Office FAQ Definitions

US Copyright Office Definitions


Checklists can help you think about your ethical responsibilities when using images. Use these checklists to help determine if your image use is fair and ethical.

Fair Use Checklists

Fair Use Analysis Checklist, Cornell University (pdf)  

Fair Use Checklist, Columbia University

Ethical Use Checklist

Ethical Image Use Checklist, UW Libraries (pdf)

Why Fair Use?

"Fair Use is an essential part of copyright law. Its purpose is to allow you to use or quote copyrighted material without permission or payment in order to create new culture"

- from Fair Use is a Right! video by Kristian Perry for the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University


Ethical Use and Copyright Resources

National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics

Ethical guidelines for documentary photography and visual journalism.

NPPA Ethics in the Age of Digital Photography

Essays on ethics in photography by John Long, NPPA Ethics co-chair and past president. Includes "Visual Lies," "Changes to Photographs," and "Digital Manipulation."

Center for Social Media

Center for Media & Social Impact

Media-related copyright and Fair Use information, codes, best practices, videos, and toolkits

Visual Resources Association

VRA Fair Use Statement on the Use of Images for Teaching, Research, and Study

Statement on scholarly image use and Fair Use from the Visual Resources Association

Books on Copyright and Fair Use