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Images: Finding and Using

A Note

There's a lot of text on this page, I know, and I apologize! But copyright is a complicated subject and I'm hoping to cover as many angles related to the visual arts as possible. If it's all too much, 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.

Poster for Joseph Arthur's play Blue Jeans. lithograph, ca. 1890. Brown Digital Repository.

Can I Use These Images for...?

A classroom presentation or paper illustration?

In general, images used in a classroom presentation, for a scholarly lecture, or in an unpublished assigned paper, fall under the concept of Fair Use.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.

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

Not an easy question to answer. 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, it is always safest to get permission first.

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.


George Cruikshank. Life in London: Tom and Jerry "Sporting a Toe..." 1820s. Luna Collection.


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, 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


Thomas Rowlandson. Friends and Foes -- Up He Goes. 1813, Anne S. K. Brown MIlitary Collection.

More Questions

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:

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 work of art could not be considered to be protected by copyright. This decision does not necessarily apply to districts outside of the court's domain, however, and certainly not to countries outside the US. In addition, many museums have recently begun allowing free use of pre-20th century materials from their collection in the belief that such works are in the public domain. To be safe, you should always check before publication.