Images and the Law

All of the images on the "Free Images" page are copyright-free and in the public domain in the United States. The author of these pages makes no copyright claim to his reproduction or enhancements to these images. However, some images are affected by "underlying rights" that may influence how you can legally use them. It is your responsibility to use these free images lawfully.

This information is provided with the understanding that the author is not a lawyer and is not engaged in rendering legal services, and makes no claims as to the accuracy or completeness of the information. When working with legal issues, you should always seek experienced, professional counsel.

The information below is condensed from the book "How to Use Images Legally".

Images of People

The most common problem you will run into is a photo with people in it. If you are using their images for editorial purposes, it's usually okay to use them without permission.

If you are using photos with people in them for advertising, you need their permission. People have a right to profit, and exclude someone else from profiting on their photograph or likeness. This right continues after their death and is given to their heirs.

Here's an example to illustrate the difference between editorial use and advertising use. If you had pictures inside a book illustrating people skiing, you would probably not need their permission. If you put that same picture on the cover of the book, you probably should get their permission.

There are areas of legal exposure to also be aware of, regardless of the editorial or advertising use of the photo. (Continued on sample pages)

Images of Things

Be wary of logos, symbols, devices, brand names, company names, and anything which are or should be marked TM (trademark) SM (service mark) or ® (Registered trademark) in an image. Unlike copyright, which expires after a number of years, trademarks are protected as long as they are in use by the owner. For example, a public domain picture of a famous cartoon character could get you into trouble if you used it without permission.

More Information

This brief discussion has given you a few basic tips. There are lots of other areas to talk about, including:

This book can quickly show you:

  • Two quick tests to see if an image is public domain
  • When you can't use public domain images
  • How to avoid "underlying rights" traps
  • The differing laws governing editorial, advertising and commercial use of images
  • The four layers of ownership you must have to legally use an image
  • How to avoid trademark infringements with an image
  • 20 common objects in photos that cause copyright infringement, trademark infringement, or violate trade secret laws
  • When location permissions are necessary
  • The four types of protected marks in images
  • How to avoid infringing on the five rights of copyright
  • How to check an image's copyright status
  • Many other topics -- See Sample Pages

Do people violate these rules on a regular basis? Of course they do, and a percentage of them get caught. It is best to avoid the worry, the penalties and bad publicity for you, your career, and your organization.