Art History: Copyright and Fair Use

What is copyright?

Copyright. Fair Use. Intellectual Property. Public Domain. Image Appropriation.

These terms can cause confusion for many people, and art students especially need to develop a basic understanding of these concepts as they work and embark upon their careers. Here are some resources that will help you as you educate yourself. They are not intended to substitute for legal advice. 

What is copyright? "Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship in a fixed, tangible medium of expression. Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.' (

Artists Rights 101 is a great resource provided by the Artist Rights Society: 

Please see the Library's Copyright and Fair Use page under Help and Services, which links to the PSU Copyright Guide and University Copyright Policy


Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Visual Artists

Code of Fair Use for Visual Artists


Creative Commons

Everything you wanted to know about Creative Commons

Essentially, this is a license that a creator can use if they want to be able to share their work with others. There are several different kinds of CC license options that stipulate what kind of use is permitted by the creator. 

image of creative commons license logos

Getting Permission

How do I get permission to use an image? 

If the artist is one of many that contract with the Artist Rights Society, you may contact them here:

Another great resource was created by Rich Stim, an Attorney at Stanford University, called "The Basics of Getting Permission"

Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property "refers to creations of the mind: inventions; literary and artistic works; symbols, names and images used in commerce" (World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO). Read this helpful guide from WIPO which helps explain trademarks, patents, industrial design, trade secrets, and more. 

Can I use it?

Can I use it? Decision map from the University of Minnesota This image is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution by the University of Minnesota Libraries. 
Use It? A Map of Use Issues - Download a PDF

Fair Use

Fair Use: 17 U.S. Code § 107 Limitations to exclusive rights.

You may be able to use copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. Here are four factors to consider when trying to determine "fair use": 
  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether the use is of a commercial nature or is for non-profit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the whole; 
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. 

Image Appropriation

Image appropriation, in the simplest terms is to "appropriate" or "use" an image. If you employ an image that is not yours to use, you could be in danger of legal trouble, plagiarism charges, and you may certainly be on ethically shaky ground. If you are able to use an image because of "fair use", simply citing your source may be sufficient. If you are not able to claim fair use, you may need to seek out permission and possibly purchase a license. 

Public Domain

A work may have passed into the public domain, which means you may use if without copyright restrictions. But be aware of the fact that works may have restrictions other than copyright, and you still must cite your source. Cornell University has provided a handy reference if you have questions about public domain. 

Sreenshot of Cornell University's public domain resource center