Getting Permission to Reproduce Copyrighted Images

Getting Permission to Reproduce Copyrighted Images

by Crystal Everson, J.D., June 2019

If you plan to use photographs, videos, drawings, or other images that you did not create, you need to be sure to avoid copyright infringement claims. In most cases, you will need to obtain permission from the person holding the rights to the image. This includes images found online.

Man talking on cellphone holding tablet in an office with a laptop and a desktop on his table

Copyright Protection of Images

A person who creates a work of art, whether it is a photograph, video, painting, drawing, or other image, has copyright protection for that work. This is true even if the person does not officially register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. The original producer of the work also may sell the copyright to another person, who then becomes the copyright holder.

Reproducing a copyrighted work without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal. Anyone who does so is subject to being sued for copyright infringement. This can result in a court judgment prohibiting continued use of the work, and requiring the payment of all proceeds received from the illegal use of the work and other monetary damages.

When Permission May Not Be Required

There are two situations where permission is not required. These are known as public domain and fair use.

Copyright protection is granted under U.S. law for a certain number of years, depending upon such factors as the type of work, when it was first published, and when it was first protected. After that period, copyright protection ends and the material is considered to have passed into the public domain. It may then be copied and used by anyone.

The fair use doctrine applies to material that is still under copyright protection. This allows use of the copyrighted material without permission for the purposes of criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.

Even if you believe your use of an image falls within the category of public domain or fair use, it may still be a good idea to obtain permission. Depending upon the age of the image, it can be difficult to determine if it is in the public domain. The fair use doctrine can be complicated, with what constitutes fair use being determined by various factors, such as the nature of the material, the manner in which it is used, the amount of the material used, and the economic impact on the value of the material. Fair use also may be more limited with images than with copyrighted written material.

Obtaining Permission

Once you have determined the identity and location of the copyright holder, getting permission may be a simple matter of exchanging letters with the copyright holder. You send a letter to the holder asking for permission and stating how you intend to use the image. The holder sends a letter back granting you permission. Your request should be as specific as possible in describing the intended use of the image.

A person seeking permission has an interest in obtaining a license for broad use of the image. However, a copyright holder may require a more complex licensing agreement when granting permission to reproduce images, which limits the use being granted. If a more formal document is needed, a relatively simple permission to reproduce images form may be used.