When Can You Use an Image Someone Else Created?

OR ….Copyright, in a nutshell

Ok, you see an image you just love and it looks old, so you just assume it’s no longer copyrighted and go ahead and use it.  Are you in trouble with copyright or not?


It depends on how old the image is.  Copyright laws assign the right to use an image to the creator of the work for the life of the person plus 70 years.    This means that the creator is the owner of the image and must grant you permission to use the image, usually for a fee. 

Copyright law applies to

  • literary works
  • musical works, including any accompanying words
  • dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • pantomimes and choreographic works
  • pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works
  • motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • sound recordings
  • architectural works

 However, there are some exceptions.  Any work created and published by the US Government is not copyrightable.  It is in the “public domain”.  The claim that “pre-1923 works are in the public domain” is correct  for published works.  Also, works published between 1923 and 1964 needed an application to extend their copyright.  Most did not do so and so are now in the public domain.  So, to make a long story short…

  1. If your image was created and published prior to 1923, you are not in trouble.
  2. If your image was created by the US government, you are not in trouble.
  3. If the image was created between 1923 and 1964 and was not copyright renewed, you are not in trouble.
  4. Any thing else…you are in trouble.

Well, either you are in trouble or you’d better do some quick research and contact the owner of the image to get permission to use it. After all, that’s the right thing to do anyway.


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