What Are the Copyright Laws for Images?

People taking photograph with digital camera
••• Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images

Digital cameras and social networking sites have led to an increase in the volume of images across the media. Anyone who uploads images to a website, or who downloads or copies images created by others, should be aware of the importance of copyright. Copyright laws protect the creators of original works from unauthorized reproduction or copying and penalize those who fail to respect others’ copyrights. Chapter 17 of the United States Code contains the Copyright Act and the relevant laws.

Ownership of an Image

According to Section 102 of the Copyright Act, copyright protection exists in original works, including pictorial, graphic and sculptural works. The creator of an image, therefore, owns the copyright for that image. The copyright owner has an exclusive right to sell, copy, distribute or reproduce that image; anyone else who does so without his permission is in breach of copyright laws. Remember that just because an image has been uploaded to the Internet, does not mean it is necessarily free to use. The photographer has copyright protection as soon as he captures the image in a tangible form, and he does not need to register the image or attach a copyright symbol to enforce his rights.


The owner of the copyright for an image may license its use, for example, by allowing another person to insert the image in a publication or post it on the Internet. The owner may restrict the license to a single use or may allow unlimited use, depending on the terms of the agreement. If you want to use an image that you find on the Internet, for example, on a blog or publication, you should check with the creator or owner whether you need to purchase a license.

Fair Use

Copyright law allows the use of certain images without a license if the use is deemed to be fair. Fair use includes educational purposes, news, criticism and comment. According to Section 110 of the Copyright Act, a teacher or lecturer at a non-profit-making educational establishment may copy and use images as part of a face-to-face teaching activity.

Length of Copyright

Images created after 1978 have copyright protection for the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years. After that time, the images enter the public domain and anyone may copy or reproduce them without fear of breaching copyright laws.

Read More: How to Copyright Artwork

Work for Hire

The creator of an image generally owns the copyright, except where he has created the image as part of his employment or as a commission. According to Section 201 of the Copyright Act, in these circumstances either the employer or the person who commissioned the image is the owner of the copyright unless otherwise stated in an agreement. In that case you would have to get permission from the actual copyright owner, and not the photographer, to use that photo.

Related Articles