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Copyright protects most fixed and tangible expressions of an idea:

  • texts : books, articles, emails, and web-based information
  • photographs, art, graphics
  • music
  • software

Copyright does not protect:

  • works that lack originality (like the phone book)
  • works in the public domain
  • US government works

Copyright applies as soon as a work is put in material form. A copyright lasts for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years before it automatically becomes a part of the public domain. 

US Copyright Law

Fair Use

To “use” a copyrighted work, you must either have the copyright holder’s permission, or you must qualify for a legal exception such as “fair use.” Fair Use is the legal, unauthorized use of copyrighted material, allowable under certain circumstances. Many educational and classroom use falls under fair use, but there are many images use cases that can be fair.

Fair use (Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright code) provides parameters for the legal use of copyrighted material without the permission of the copyright holder.

Four factors for determining fair use eligibility:

  • Purpose and character of use, including whether the 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 work as a whole.
  • The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. 

Public Domain

Symbol that indicates that a work is no longer under copyrightImages in the Public Domain are no longer under copyright protection and can be used freely. In general images published before 1923 are in the public domain in the United States. 

There are four common ways that works arrive in the public domain:

  • the copyright has expired
  • the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  • the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain, known as “dedication,” or
  • copyright law does not protect this type of work. Learn more
The following databases and websites are great places to find public domain images, but be aware not all images found in these databases are in the public domain.

Creative Commons

Images and Photos made available under a creative commons license are free to use, with varying restrictions. Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable owners to modify copyright terms to best suit their needs.

You can search most image databases for creative commons licensed images.


AttributionNonderivativeNoncommercialShare Alike

Images by Creative Commons - Creative Commons, Public Domain,


Please keep in mind that this site is not intended to provide legal advice about copyright. Learn more about copyright.