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January 22, 2016

Navigating Copyright for Reproduced Images: Part 2. Determining Whether Permission Is Needed

Chelsea blog 2 by Chelsea Lee

This post is part of a series on how to cite an image reproduced from another source in APA Style. Here is Part 1.

The second step in navigating copyright for reproduced images is understanding whether you need permission from the image’s copyright holder before you are legally allowed to reproduce the image in your paper. This applies even if you are writing a paper for a classroom assignment and not for publication. 


When Is Permission Required? 

Permission is only sometimes required to reproduce an image.

  • Permission is required to reproduce a copyrighted image unless it meets one of the criteria described below in Parts A, B, C, or D of this post.
  • Permission is not required to reproduce an image that has a creative commons license or is in the public domain. If that’s your case, proceed to Part 4 of this series.

A. Academic Sources

Many scientific, technical, and medical publishers will allow you to reproduce images (here meaning tables or figures) without obtaining permission provided that

  • the purpose of the use is scholarly comment, noncommercial research, or educational use and
  • full credit is given to the author and publisher as copyright holder.

For example, APA allows you to reproduce without obtaining permission

  • up to three tables or figures from a journal article or book chapter or
  • a maximum of five tables or figures from a whole book.

Note that all publishers have their own policies, so you should check with the publisher of your material to determine whether permission is necessary. For materials published by APA, visit the APA Permissions Office.

B. Commercial Stock Photography

To reproduce a stock photo you will most likely have to buy a license from its stock photography website (e.g., ShutterStock, iStock, Getty Images, Corbis). Consult the terms of the image to know what steps to take.

  • If you do own the license to a stock photograph, you can use the image in the paper without any attribution or credit line.
  • If you do not own the license to a stock photograph, you cannot reproduce the image.

Note that you might come across a stock photo “in the wild”—for example, as part of a newspaper or magazine article (the images on this blog fall into this category too). That means that the publisher has bought a license for the stock photograph. If you want to use the photograph in your paper too, you need to go buy your own license for the photo.

C. Clip Art

Most clip art does not require permission to reproduce, but it may require a credit line. Check the terms of the clip art website to determine what to do.

  • If the clip art comes from a program like Microsoft Word, then by buying the program you have bought a license to that clip art and can use it in an academic paper without any attribution or credit line.
  • If the clip art comes from a free clip art website (e.g., Openclipart) and it has a creative commons license or is in public domain, permission is not necessary but you should give a copyright statement for the image (see Part 4 of this series).

D. Fair Use for Other Copyrighted Sources

You may also be able to avoid seeking permission to reproduce a copyrighted image if your use is considered “fair.” Fair use is a loosely defined and complicated legal concept (here is a summary from the U.S. Copyright Office), but in practice it means that under certain circumstances you can reproduce or adapt a copyrighted image without obtaining permission so long as you credit the source (see Part 4 of this series).

In the context of reproducing an image, your use is probably fair if it meets the following criteria:

  • It is for use in an academic work and not for profit (such as a paper for a class or publication in an academic journal).
  • It represents facts or data (such as a chart or diagram) rather than creative self-expression (such as artwork, although some famous works of art are in the public domain and thus do not require permission).
  • It is small in relation to the whole work (such as a chart within a report) and not the whole thing or the “heart” of the work (such as an individual photograph or a whole cartoon).
  • Reproducing the image will not hurt the market or potential market for the original.

If you fail to meet the above criteria for fair use or if you are unsure as to whether you meet the criteria, exercise caution and seek permission to reproduce the image. For more help in determining fair use, check out this Fair Use Checklist from Columbia University.

Unclear Copyright

If the copyright status of the image is unclear, assume that it is copyrighted. Contact the publisher of the image for more information if needed. If the origin of the image cannot be determined (e.g., it appears in many places on the internet without attribution and it is impossible to say where exactly it originated), we recommend that you choose an alternative image for your paper. Be particularly careful of stock photographs, which legally can be reproduced without attribution, but only by a license holder. 


Continue to Part 3: Securing Permission

Continue to Part 4: Writing the Copyright Statement



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