Art + Design: Copyright and Fair Use

This is by no means comprehensive, but we wanted to provide a space to highlight resources and materials that can broaden the representation of artists in teaching and research as it applies to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the art world.

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 Copyright covers both published and unpublished works.' ( Learn more here

Copyright Basics for Artists 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


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

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 hereOtherwise, you must seek permission directly from the creator. 
Another great resource was created by Rich Stim, Attorney at law for Stanford University called "The Basics of Getting Permission"

Want to copyright your own work? Do you need to?

Want to register copyright for one of your works? Do you need to? The Library of Congress presents "Steps to Copyright" which includes instrutions on registering your very own copyright. 

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. 

Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Visual Artists

Code of Fair Use for Visual Artists


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, new 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 purpose;
  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. 
Download FAIR USE CHECKLIST from Cornell University to help you figure out if your use of a copyrighted work is indeed fair. The University of Minnesota has also created a tool to help you figure this out. Fair use is very context-dependent, so try using this online aid to help you "Think Through Fair Use"

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