We all know that we should not use something that someone else has written in a manner that suggests the words are our own – we should clearly state our source.
When it comes to using images, matters can be far less clear because you aren’t likely to be able to protect yourself by stating where you got a picture. If it is subject to copyright, you need permission to use it. It is as simple as that. Also, nowadays, under international law, copyright applies automatically if a piece of work is presented in a tangible form. The owner no longer has to specifically state that his work is subject to copyright.
Copying images from a book or the Internet for anything other that private use will almost always involve a breach of copyright unless permission has been granted explicitly or it can be claimed that you are making ‘fair use’ of the material. This expression comes from the USA. There is a similar concept in the United Kingdom but the law if far more restrictive in the European country.
‘Fair use’ tends to apply in an educational or non-profit context. However, just because you work in this context, does not mean you are free to download, copy, duplicate or disseminate images – quite the contrary. The expression implies using the images in a restricted environment and in a highly controlled manner. In addition, although this is a legal concept, it is vague – one legal interpretation of a set of circumstances may vary from the judgement of another legal expert.
What about the Internet? We’ve said this already, but it’s worth repeating – you should always remember that copyright legislation is likely to apply even if a website does not specifically state that an image is copyrighted. There is also the problem of encountering a situation in which an image is being used by someone other than the copyright owner. That person may mistakenly state that the image can be downloaded and used freely. It cannot be assumed that, because an image appears in numerous websites (including blogs), it is available to be used as you so desire.
Good quality, high resolution pictures tend to be rigorously protected. You may be permitted to download such images but, almost inevitably, you will have to pay for the privilege. Under the law, if an image is freely available, at a fair price, you need to pay that price in order to make use of the image (unless, of course, you can persuade the owner to waive the fee).
Those organizations that say that their images can be copied free of charge do not necessarily want them to be used for commercial purposes or in the context of a public event (eg lecture, exhibition). If you download a picture belonging to such an organization, it will be assumed that you have read and understood the licensing agreement that dictates how you can make use of the image and you can be prosecuted if you breach these conditions.
Some websites state that images can be downloaded and used for any purpose. These sites usually have an educational or philanthropic purpose. An example is www.freenaturepictures.com.
A website that you may find useful is www.tasi.ac.uk. This British site belongs to the Technical Advisory Service for Images and it provides good guidance on the legal position in Britain.
The public participates in the development of Wikipedia. Some people may, therefore, assume that all pictures appearing in Wikipedia are in the public domain and that you are free to copy them for any type of use. This is not the case. Many contributors to Wikipedia have actually waived their copyright. However, you should check the status of an image before downloading it.
Wikipedia has a detailed policy for uploading images and they should be tagged in different ways to represent their copyright status. If you left-click on an image you can obtain access to a page that states the ‘history’ of the picture and its copyright status.
Some other organizations provide a similar facility that enables you to identify the legal status of an image. Unfortunately, many, many websites contain absolutely no guidance. There is only one way of remaining safe – do not download and use an image unless you have received explicit permission.