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Copyright and Fair Use Guidelines

A brief overview of Copyright, Fair Use, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the TEACH Act.


Images of all sorts--photographs, prints, paintings, illustrations, diagrams, graphs, maps, film, videos, digital or not--are protected by copyright just as other materials are.

  • Determine if the image you want to use is in the public domain or available from a licensed resource.
  • The exemption for classroom use (Section 110) allows the limited display of images in the classroom or in the online teaching environment. See Media in the Classroom and TEACH Act.
  • For other uses of images, conduct a fair use analysis to see if your proposed use would require permission.

Complicating factors:

  • You may be dealing with layers of images: e.g. a digital reproduction of a book illustration or photograph. Although the original may be in the public domain, the digital reproduction may still be covered by copyright or license.
  • The fair use principles allow for the use of a portion of a work, but an image may be an entire work in itself. Note that illustrations in books and articles may be individually copyrighted separately from the book/article. The Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Multimedia recommend using no more than 5 works by the same artist/photographer or no more than 15 images or 10% from a collective work (whichever is less), but also have restrictions on where and for how long these works can be used. They also recommend using no more than "10% or 3 minutes, whichever is less, in the aggregate of a copyrighted motion media work."
  • Copyright protects creative expression, so an image that displays more individual expression is more protected than a more generic depiction. A dramatic film is more protected than an instructional film or news broadcast.
  • The purpose of your use is important. The use of images integral for teaching, comment, critique, or to illustrate a point would be more favored than a merely decorative or supplementary use.  



  • Institution is a nonprofit educational institution
  • Work is being used in a classroom or other similar teaching place devoted to instruction
  • Work is being displayed or performed by teacher or students
  • If a movie, the copy of the movie was obtained lawfully (the person showing the movie didn’t have reason to believe it wasn’t made lawfully)


  • Other methods of displaying work not feasible (such as screen capture) 
  • Circumventing technical locks to display “short” portions of the work
  • For educational purpose
  • By college and university faculty and students or K-12 educators and students (where the K-12 student is circumventing under direct supervision of an educator)
  • For the purpose of criticism, comment, teaching, or scholarship


Photographs of people may involve rights of privacy or publicity, state and/or federal laws which limit the use of a person's likeness.  Consider:

  • Using photographs of people taken in larger public scenes
  • Avoiding photographs of famous people, or people engaging in private activities
  • Being aware that Publicity rights limit commercial uses

Photographs of works of art may involve the rights of the work's creator/copyright holder. Consider:

  • Using photographs of 2-D public domain works -- these are usually not protected by copyright

Buildings designed after Dec. 1, 1990 are copyrighted. Consider:

  • Using photographs taken from a public place

A Fair(y) Use Tale

Professor Eric Faden of Bucknell University created this humorous, yet informative, review of copyright principles. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License

Distributed on DVD by The Media Education Foundation.

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