How to Know if Internet Images Are Copyrighted

by Victoria McGrath
Unauthorized use of internet images can infringe on the owner's rights.

Unauthorized use of internet images can infringe on the owner's rights.

BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images

Potentially all internet images qualify for copyright protection. The instant the image is created in a digital form, it qualifies for "common law" copyrights. Common law copyrights come from the old English system of law. Under common law, original works of authorship fixed in a tangible form automatically secure copyright protection. Tangible forms for internet images include digital files, emails and webpages. Therefore, all original internet images in a digital format are copyrighted; the owner is not required to apply for federal copyright registration. Federal registration is optional. The public may still have be able to use the copyrighted images if fair use applies. The fair use doctrine allows others to use the copyrighted work, under restricted conditions and not for profit.

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Internet Images as Visual Arts Work

The vast majority of internet images qualify for copyrights, as original creative work. The Copyright Office classifies this type of work as visual arts. The visual arts category includes photographs, paintings, drawings and designs. A subcategory for visual arts specifically refers to pictorial, graphic and sculptural works. Internet images potentially include both pictures and graphics. Pictures always qualify as original works of authorship, because of the unique perspective of the photographer. Each photographer frames each shot differently. Duplicate pictures are protected as reproductions of the original photograph. Graphic design images also possess originality, due to the graphic designers creative input. Images such as emoticons may qualify for copyright protection, since they contain creative inspiration from the designer.

Copyright Infringement on the Internet

Since most internet images automatically qualify for common law copyrights, as soon as they are saved as digital images, any unauthorized use potentially amounts to infringement. Copyright infringement means that someone used the copyrighted work without permission and the unauthorized use deprived the owner of his exclusive rights to use, reproduce and profit from the material. Copyright owners often place a notice of copyright on the work, with the author's name and publication date. The notice of copyright and warning against unauthorized use of images might appear on the original website. Internet images in the public domain may be used by the general public without permission. When in doubt about registered copyrights, search the federal database of registered copyrights, maintained by the United States Copyright Office.

Three Defenses to Infringement

When a person casually uses an internet image without permission, that person infringes on the copyright owner's exclusive rights to use and profit from the image. That person may argue that fair-use applies. Under a fair-use defense, a person claims to have used the copyrighted work for non-profit or educational purposes. Fair use supports use of copyright material to promote a public discourse.

Legal Liability for Infringement

If a copyright owner wants to stop someone form using his images on the internet, he can contact the individual personally or notify the host of the site that the image appears on. The person who posted the image without permission could be found legally liable for infringement and required to pay damages. The court will consider the nature of the use, the extent of the content used and any lost profits caused by the unauthorized use. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, a service provider will not be held liable for user-based content if he takes the illegal content down immediately, once notified by the copyright owner.