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Images: Ethical Use & Copyright

Image Copyright and Ethical Use

copyright logo Digital images are electronic resources that need to be used responsibly and with an awareness of copyright and ethical use best practices. Most sources 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.


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

MSUB Copyright Guidelines



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


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.


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.


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. 


License agreements

Contracts between the MSUB Library 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.

More definitions

US Copyright Office FAQ Definitions

US Copyright Office Definitions

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 at American University

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


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