Everything You Need to Know About Fair Use Images

It is not every day that the rules of fair use images come up in conversation. If you really think about it, how much do you know about fair use images in the first place? Understanding the importance of fair use photographs can keep you from copyright infringement. It is time to educate yourself on the basics of fair use pictures.

A camera in it’s natural environment.

What Is a Fair Use Image?

In order to better understand the rules of fair use images, we must understand what a fair use image is in the first place. As content creators, we all understand the importance of using photographs to tell a story. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words. By definition, fair use images are photographs that are open for media users to adopt and publish with their work. These are images that are usually found on stock photo websites or are public domain.


In order for these images to be considered fair use, you have to follow certain guidelines. Fair use means that you can infringe on someone else’s copyright if you are not claiming work as your own and using it for the right purposes. The guideline categories that fair use images fall under usually include research, education, and even personal use with the right conditions. As long as images are used in a way that respects the wishes of the creator, they fall under fair use.

Why Does Fair Use Exist in the First Place?

Fair use is essentially a way to make sure that artists are not being taken advantage of. It was not until 1976 that a judge codified it in the Copyright Act. This legal doctrine promotes freedom of expression among the general public, while also protecting the rights of artists. Today, courts evaluate fair use claims on a case-to-case basis. The nature of fair use cases is almost never the same, so each one needs to be individually evaluated.

Fair Use Images in the Digital Age

These images are a fairly recent development in terms of technology. Throughout history, it was easier for people to tell the difference between an original copy of a painting, photograph, or drawing and a copy. Needless to say, fair use was not as much of a problem before technology took the world by storm. The use of digital images has made it so that people can easily duplicate others’ work at the click of a button. This process is unfair to the people that work tirelessly to create artwork for a living.

Why Does It Matter?

How would you feel if you worked tirelessly on a painting just for someone else to steal it and take credit for it? You probably would not be too happy. Fair use adapted in response to people stealing and taking credit for the work of others online. To make the new adaptation of fair use a little bit easier to understand, think about physically recreating someone else’s artwork instead of copying and pasting an image online. The sheer amount of labor that goes into physically recreating a piece of artwork ensures more fairness in the process of using someone else’s work as inspiration. These new guidelines ensure that artists and their work do not get taken advantage of.

La marinière en Lin Atelier Unes
Photographer: Matthieu Jungfer | Source: Unsplash

When to Use Someone Else’s Images

Before you even think about using someone else’s images in your work, it is important to ask yourself what you are using the image for. If you are using an image for the purpose of teaching, news reporting, commenting, or research, you are in the clear. On the other hand, if you claim an image as your own, you are can get into a world of trouble. There are also exceptions to be made when it comes to transformative work. If you create an original piece of work with a copyrighted image this can fall under fair use. This is only really the case when the image you created no longer resembles the original.


Some artists use smaller pieces of an image to create a completely different piece of artwork or even transform it to the point where it is unrecognizable. This is a perfect example of how to use an image for the purpose of art and still fall under the fair use umbrella. addition to transforming an image, one can also use smaller pieces of an image. For example, if you wish to educate your classroom on a body part, there are exceptions. Under the rules of fair use, you can crop an image down to just that body part. Fair use protects cases like these.

Commentary and Criticism 

Fair use laws also cover commentary and criticism. It is acceptable for one to use copyrighted work when they are commenting on or criticizing it. This kind of use is fair because the public benefits from outsider reviews. In addition to that, no one is directly claiming the work of someone else as their own. The use of copyrighted materials enhances this kind of material.

Fair Use and Social Media

The development of social media drastically changed the way that all of us view and share images. In today’s world, it is easier than ever before to take a screenshot of another person’s content and share it as our own. Just because it is easier, however, does not mean that we should do it. It is important for us, as social media users, to have an understanding of both our rights and the rules of fair use. It is also imperative to keep in mind that the rules of fair use are constantly evolving, just like our social media platforms are. In terms of deciding what is fair use on social media, it all comes down to the wishes of the creator. If the photograph is visible publicly and anyone can see it, it is most likely within our legal rights to use and share that image. On the other hand, if an image is on a private account, it is not considered fair use. It’s just as simple as that!

How to Protect Your Own Images

In order to ensure security when it comes to your own images, it would be wise to look into tools such as DAM, or digital rights management. Programs like this allow you to license your information and further protect it. Copyright laws are constantly changing in the digital age. It never hurts to take that extra step and ensure the protection of your own images. If you choose to use a digital rights management system, that company will continuously protect your images.


Another step you can take to keep your images safe is to add a watermark to your picture. A watermark is an identifying mark that is superimposed on an image. The purpose of a watermark is to make it more difficult for someone to use an image without permission. If you choose to use a watermark on your images, your name or symbol is on all of the work that you choose to post. This makes it nearly impossible for someone to take credit for your work.

Stock Images

If you are struggling to find a free image or the rules of fair use are unclear to you, stock images might be for you! Stock images are essentially photographs that are already taken, edited, and ready to be used. The way this works is that authors take images and sell them to stock photo agencies. Stock agencies are companies that offer an online catalog of digital images that you can pay for and use directly in your projects. Choosing to buy from the agency is a safe decision because the images are protected from copyright infringement and the artist gets a percentage of the company’s revenue. This is a win-win situation.

What Happens When an Image Is Not Fair Use?

Image copyright is different in every single country. It is important to note that you are bound to the copyright of the country where the image was taken and the photographer or artist resides. In the United States, copyright falls under Title 17. There is a constant revision to this clause. Lawmakers understand that the world around us constantly changes and so should the rules that govern us. Copyright decisions made through individual court cases are final. Ultimately, if you are using a photo that does not belong to you in the first place, it is wise to double-check that it clearly fits into the protected purposes. If it does not, you are at risk for an infringement lawsuit. When it comes to the use of someone else’s photos, when in doubt, assume that it is subject to copyright and avoid using it.

creative commons CC BY-NC-ND


  • How do you know if an image is fair use?
  • What defines fair use?
  • Are screenshots fair use images?
  • What are examples of fair use photographs?
  • When was fair use created?

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