Blackwell Library

Images: Art, Photographs, Digital Images

Copyright Symbol imageVisual works of art (pictures (digital or original), sculptures, or graphic works) are protected under copyright law just as are print works.

Works of art in any form raise particular copyright issues. While fair use often allows copying portions of works, an image is a complete work in itself. As with other formats, there may also be multiple copyright owners. The main difference that arises frequently when discussing visual works of art and Copyright Law comes from the fact that what educators are using in their classrooms today are not the actual works, rather the digital reproductions/photographs of the original work.

For example, an art professor would not show his students the actual David statue by Michelangelo - rather he would show them a photo of it. The David statue itself is no longer protected by copyright law, but what about the photograph that the art professor has chosen to display to his students? And if this photograph is protected by copyright law, is the professor legally allowed to show it to his students?

  • If the work is safely considered an "art reproduction", then yes, the photograph is not a new original work of art in it's own right, and does not therefore fall under copyright law.

  • However, if enough artistic merit and ingenuity has been placed into creating the photograph (and courts have decided that skill, creativity, or just plain accidental circumstances frequently result in a new artistic work) then the new photograph of the old public-domain work does indeed fall under copyright law.


The complications of identifying and securing appropriate rights to copy and display images are one reason that Blackwell Library and the Fulton School of Liberal Arts are partnering to bring the ArtStor image database to campus. ArtStor secured permissions for educational uses of its almost 500,000 images with the capability to zoom into rich details rather than view thumbnails only. Not an art but an image database, the images cover many disciplines including women's history, Native American history, Asian art, classical studies, medical drawings, Buddhist cave paintings, architecture, photographs and a wealth of other images within a restricted usage environment that balances the rights of content providers with the needs and interests of content users. ArtStor allows:

  • students and other users to create their own image folders

  • faculty to create groups of images and add images of their own and make them accessible to students

  • scholars to download and use at no cost high-resolution images for scholarly publications

For more information contact Stephen Ford, Information Literacy Librarian:

For Student Multimedia Projects:

Conservative guidelines allow use of one entire photograph/illustration, no more than five images by an artist, and when taken from a published work, no more than 10% or 15 images, whichever is less, if the project is created for a specific course and is shown in the course and/or is incorporated in a portfolio for later personal uses (job interviews, graduate school applications).

For Faculty Multimedia Projects:

Conservative, but not legally binding, guidelines allow use of one entire photograph/illustration, no more than five images by an artist, and when taken from a published work, no more than 10% or 15 images, whichever is less, for up to two years before obtaining permission for teaching, if:

  1. the project is a teaching tool for face-to-face, online classes and directed studies

  2. students are advised that they cannot copy presentations

  3. online sessions are limited to students enrolled in sessions

  4. online sessions use technology to prevent copying or in its absence faculty post projects for 15 days after their initial real-time or assigned use followed by access to a copy in the library or similar location for on-site use only

Although the process of securing permissions should begin immediately if the multimedia teaching tool will be used for more than two years, other uses do not have the same prescribed time limits: use in presentations at workshops and conferences and in personal portfolios (tenure reviews, job applications).

Classroom Copying

  1. one copy of a chart, graph, diagram, drawing, cartoon or picture from a book, periodical, or newspaper at the request of a teacher for research or use in teaching or preparation to teach a class, or

  2. multiple copies not to exceed more than one copy per pupil in a course at the request of or by a teacher giving the course for classroom use or discussion if each copy made includes a notice of copyright, is for a single course during an academic term, and insufficient time existed to secure permission.

Digitizing Images (Slide Collections) for Educational Use

Although the Conference on Fair Use didn't reach consensus about creating and using digital images for education, they provide some direction. Their guidelines apply only to:

  • lawfully obtained copyrighted analog images (pre-existing and newly acquired analog visual image collections)

  • educators, scholars, students, librarians and curators engaged in instruction, research or scholarly activities at educational institutions (non-profit) for educational (non-commercial) purposes

The guidelines permit institutions to:

  • digitize existing image collections images (typically slide collections), use images for a period of seven years during which time making reasonable inquiry to obtain permissions. After seven years, apply fair use factors for longer term use.

  • digitize newly acquired collections if images aren't available to purchase or license at a reasonable price in digital format

  • create thumbnail images only

  • display through a secure network with notices that images should not be downloaded, copies, retained, shared, modified or used in other ways

  • create compilations of images for courses if access is limited to students in the course

  • limit the use of newly acquired digitized analog images to one semester, seek permissions during that semester and thereafter apply fair use factors for longer term use. If the rights owner is unknown, images may be used for three years from first use provided reasonable inquiry is made.

The guidelines permit faculty and students to:

  • display images in lectures, presentations and non-commercial workshops and conferences

  • use images in course assignments in fulfillment of degree requirements

  • display their work in courses in which they are enrolled

  • retain work in personal portfolios for later uses: graduate school, employment

The guidelines do not address the use of images in publications.

Information Resources

  1. Several web sites list public domain images (no longer protected by copyright and able
    to be used freely without requesting permission).

  2. The Center for Social Media at American University provides an array of information: documentary filmmaker's interpretations of fair use, fair use scenarios, and opportunities to blog:

  3. Public Domain Movies and Film provides readily available films for downloading, copying, and performing.

The bottom line when dealing with digital images - follow the same rules as you would when dealing with printed/written works and you will be on the right side of the law.