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Find resources and recommendations on making legal and ethical use of copyrighted scholarly work.

A Note

Copyright is unfortunately a complicated subject. Please don't hesitate to contact me for individual help. I can help with determining copyright status of images in Brown's licensed databases or other sources. I can also help you in locating images and image sources or rights owners for use in academic publications.

Bas-relief with fairy feeding a dragon

Unknown Chinese. Fairy Feeding Lingzhi Fungus to a Dragon. Earthenware from X'ian tomb. Western Han, 1st century BCE. Cleveland Museum of Art via Creative Commons license.

Can I Use These Images for...?

A classroom presentation or paper illustration?

In general, images used in a classroom presentation, for a scholarly lecture, on a password-protected class website, or in an unpublished assigned paper, fall under the concept of Fair Use. Fair use is an exception to the exclusive rights granted by copyright. For further information, consult the this document from the United States Copyright Office:


A lecture to a paying audience?

If your audience is paying to see you, in general you should obtain permission before using an image, unless the image is in the Public Domain.

A published scholarly article, book, dissertation or website?

You are responsible in these cases for obtaining permission, unless the work is in the Public Domain. In most cases, your publisher will require that you do so. However, the Visual Resources Association argues that images used in dissertations and theses should be considered fair use.

A new work of art based on another person's art?

The creator of a copyrighted work of art is given the exclusive right to prepare derivative works based on that work. On the other hand, there is a long tradition of artists responding to others' works. Whether you are basing your work on the original work of art, or a digital or print copy of it, in order to claim fair use, you should be ready to explain your rationale, be sure that your work is creating new artistic meaning, and give credit in some way to the creator of the original work.

Some Things to Consider

Images in Browns' and RISD's licensed databases may be used for educational purposes only: teaching, lectures at scholarly institutions, class papers and presentations, educational websites restricted to Brown users. Images may not be used for publication unless copyright has been cleared or public domain status has been verified. 

The rights of images found in web resources will vary. You must be more stringent for publication, whether in print or on the web, than for class papers and presentations that will be seen only within a circumscribed educational setting. Works employed in a classroom setting generally fall under fair use.


For publication, try to determine where the image came from. Does the work belong to a museum? Check the museum's own website for rights information. Almost every museum website will have a page labeled with a variation on Licensing, Publications, Rights, etc. More and more now, museums are allowing free use of works they consider to be in the public domain (especially American museums), but you must check with the museum to be sure this is allowed. For architecture, public art, etc, try to determine who the photographer is and contact him or her for permission. Karen can also help you with determining this. Additional resources for determining copyright and/or public domain status can be found in the boxes below.

*Be sure to keep records of all your attempts to contact copyright owners. Documenting your good faith efforts can be helpful if your use of an image is later challenged.


Twentieth & Twenty-first Century Artists

Twentieth and twenty-first century artists and/or their heirs will almost invariably still own the rights to their works. You must obtain permission before publishing anything by them. These resources can help. Check artists' names on the websites below. If an artist is not listed on either site, try searching online for his or her gallery or other representation.

Some Copyright Resources

The Public Domain

How do I know what's in the public domain? Determining if a work is in the public domain, and therefore, free to be used in any way you wish, is confusing, to say the least. There are a number of online resources that help in determining the status of a work. Contact your librarian Karen Bouchard or take a look at this guide to copyright resources on the web:

The basics of when a work enters the public domain in the United States:

  • Created before 1929: Now in the public domain.This updates every January. In 2024, 1928 will move into the public domain.
  • 1929-1963: Copyright could be renewed every 28 years. If copyright was not renewed, the work is now in the public domain.
  • 1964-1977: Copyright lasts 95 years.
  • 1929-1977: If there was no copyright notice, the work is now in the public domain.
  • 1978 - present: Copyright lasts for life of the creator plus 70 years. Copyright notice is no longer required in order to claim copyright.

If an artist is long dead, is his work in the public domain? The work of art itself may be in the public domain, but the question of who owns the copyright to the reproduction is still unsettled. In the case of Bridgeman Art Library vs Corel Corp, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York determined that an exact photographic copy of a two-dimensional  work of art could not be considered to be protected by copyright. This decision has stood for over twenty years now. What this means is that American museums should not charge a copyright fee for reproductions of public domain works.

It also means that many American museums have recently begun allowing free use of pre-1929 materials from their collection in the belief that such works are in the public domain. If you are publishing in the United States, you will have a case for fair use of public domain materials. Outside the U.S., you will need to follow the copyright rules of that country.