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How Do Image Copyright Laws Work?

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The internet allows you to access any images available online, but that does not mean these images are available for your use! Image copyright laws protect artists, photographers, and other owners and creators. Here’s how these laws work and how to ensure you only use permitted copyrighted images. This overview also includes tips on how to protect and copyright your images.

Current Image Copyright Laws

The U.S. Copyright Law protects images as “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.” That definition continues by explaining that two and three-dimensional works of “fine, graphic, and applied art, photographs, prints and art reproductions, maps, globes, charts, diagrams, models, and technical drawings, including architectural plans fall under copyright laws. If artists register their work through the U.S. Copyright Office, they secure full ownership of their work, and anyone who uses it without permission or credit could face penalties.

Types of Licenses for Copyrighted Images

You can avoid potential liability by using properly licensed images or public domain graphics. Fortunately, a variety of licensing options are more publicly accessible. Here are examples of paid and free licenses for copyrighted images.

Rights Managed License (RM License)

Stock images, or stock photos, are electronic images available for business or creative purposes. They allow you to add graphics to a website, blog, or other publication without hiring a photographer.

Most stock issues require you to purchase a license, and the rights-managed license (RM license) is the most restrictive. They are specialist images for limited use. You can only access and license them through an RM license agency, like Getty Images.

Before you get the license, you must explain exactly where you will use the image, the number of copies you intend to print, the image size, and your industry. Once you pay the licensing fee, the agency limits you to your described use. If you want to use the same image in a different medium, you must reapply for the license and pay another fee.

For example, if you purchase a license for this Pride graphic for a print magazine but decide you also want to use it on your web page, the original license won’t extend to the web page.

Also, your license only extends to one size, and you cannot make any changes to the graphic. Instead, you must have a separate license for each size.

You must also credit the artist and follow restrictions, even if you have a license.

If you see an RM license, trust that the artist is paying close attention to their intellectual property rights. These rights give the artist exclusive control to sell, license, and change their work without other parties interfering. Follow all rules attached to an RM license. Otherwise, you risk penalties.

Royalty-Free License (RF)

The royalty-free license (RF license) is the default setting for stock images. Generally, the purchaser pays the license fee once and can use the image in unlimited applications.

RF licenses have more options. You can use them multiple times for publication, e.g., web pages, brochures, magazines, etc. However, you will need an RM extended license to make merchandise that includes the image.

Royalty-Free Extended License

Royalty-free extended licenses are also called commercial extended licenses. Unlike the first two license types, which focus on publishing rights, this category applies to using images for commercial purposes such as putting pictures on mugs, shirts, and other merchandise.

You will know your desired image has an extended license if:

  • The image indicates that a royalty-free extended license is an option
  • There are instructions to contact the owner or agency if you want to use the image commercially
  • You purchase rights to an extended image database and find your optimal image

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that advocates for sharing creative works and knowledge. Images participating in Creative Commons licenses are free as long as you credit the image’s creator. You can credit the artist or photographer by linking to their website or the original image.

You can find Creative Commons images through photo services like Flickr. Usually, the photo indicates it has a Creative Commons license and links it to the license type, giving instructions on how to attribute and use the photo with the artist’s permission. The most common Creative Commons license is Attribution 2.0 Generic, which requires appropriate credit, a link to the license, and whether you edited the photo.

However, even Creative Commons allows licenses with restrictions. Notice this photo has “some rights reserved” with the dollar sign crossed out. The text leads the Creative Commons license that prohibits commercial purposes.

Editorial Use License

The editorial use license applies to trademarks and other graphics that belong to companies. Many journalists want access to these images when they write features on a company. Also, bloggers who write online reviews might request these types of images.

The best way to secure editorial use licenses is by requesting a media kit or visiting a company’s online press center. You can’t just grab the graphic from the company’s webpage. Doing so could violate image copyright laws, and you’re also unlikely to get a high-quality image.

Public Domain

Image copyright laws protect images during the artist’s life plus 70 years after their death. After that, the images enter the public domain and can’t be renewed.

You can use most public domain images without legal risk and with few limits. Public domain images are clearly marked, and some link back to this Creative Commons page to clarify public domain rules.

But, you should still be careful with public domain photos and images since some of them have moral rights under image copyright laws. These “moral rights” protect the image from mutilation, distortion, and derogatory action that impugn the subject’s value or reputation. Creative Commons calls these Public Domain Mark 1.0 images.

You find this public domain characterization most commonly with armed forces photos. Military branches often want to avoid stolen valor situations or vulgar edits of their photos, so they rely heavily on moral rights – even if the pictures are in the public domain.

Copyright Infringement Penalties and Exceptions

Understanding image copyright laws and licenses is essential because you don’t want to face the penalties for copyright infringement. Even if you didn’t intend to infringe, damages could reach $750 to $30,000 per work.

Intentional infringement could generate damages of up to $150,000 per work infringed. You may also owe the creator any profits you generated from infringement.

However, you may be able to avoid liability if using an image falls under the fair use exception. Courts evaluate fair use on four factors, although no one factor determines the outcome:

  • Purpose and character of the use, e.g., commercial vs. nonprofit or educational use
  • Nature of copyrighted work, e.g., fictional, educational, or consumable
  • Amount of work used, e.g., thumbnail vs. entire art piece
  • Effect on value of the work, e.g., does the alleged infringement reduce the market value of the work

In general, nonprofit or educational use is more excusable than commercial use. Using an excerpt from a novel to illustrate a point in a high school English class likely passes as fair use. However, suppose that same teacher scanned the entire book and made it available online as a PDF for a small fee. That would be likely infringement rather than fair use – even if the teacher argued distribution was “educational.” That action also devalues the novel by encouraging buyers to purchase the PDF rather than pay full price for a retail copy.

Fair use also applies to images. A thumbnail of a copyrighted art piece is likely acceptable, especially if clicking it takes you to the piece’s museum page. But if you download the piece in its entirety and start selling prints, you may face trouble!

How to Copyright Images

Want to know how to copyright your images, photos, and graphics? Start by applying to the U.S. Copyright Office. Provide your photo, art piece, or graphic, and pay the filing fee. Once confirmed, you can charge licensing fees.

Another option is to get a Creative Commons license. The license allows you to gain exposure and require people to credit you if they use your work. However, unlike the U.S. Copyright Office registration, there are no remedies if someone misuses your work.

Some artists reserve copyright image registration for their most cherished works and use Creative Commons on less valuable images to gain exposure and attract people to their Instagram accounts or websites. You may find a similar balance works for you.

Need Help with Image Copyright Laws?

Image copyright laws are challenging to interpret, and you should be careful to protect your images and use others’ images correctly. Schedule an intellectual property case evaluation for further guidance on fair use and copyright images.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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