What Does "Image May Be Subject to Copyright" Mean?

By Mary Jane Freeman

Images are widely available on the Internet. In fact, doing a simple search can yield hundreds of images that can easily be copied and pasted, or downloaded for later use. However, because images are readily accessible does not mean they are without copyright protection, although determining the identity of a copyright owner is not always obvious or easy. For this reason, online entities often include the disclaimer, "image may be subject to copyright" on or near photos.

Copyright Overview

Copyright law protects original works of authorship, including artistic, literary, dramatic and musical works. For example, books, movies, songs and software may be copyrighted. Original works on a website, such as photos, artwork and writing, are also copyrightable. To use a copyrighted work, permission must be obtained from the copyright owner. Sometimes permission is not required because the use meets an exception; for example, the work may be old enough to be in the public domain. Using someone's work without permission is copyright infringement, which can result in a lawsuit and penalties, such as damages and attorney fees.

Online Images

Search engines return images when you conduct an Internet search. Along with the search results, you may see the disclaimer, "image may be subject to copyright." This may also appear on or near an individual photograph. This language places the user on notice that someone may own the copyright to the image. As a result, the user cannot reproduce, distribute or otherwise publicly display the photos without permission from the copyright owner, unless the use meets an exception. Similar disclaimers may also appear on individual websites.

Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
Protect against infringement by registering a copyright. Get Started Now
What Is Copyright Infraction?

References

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In the United States, the federal government controls official copyright registrations. Any creator that wants statutory copyright protection must register the creative work with the U.S Copyright Office. Centralizing registration in one government database makes checking to see if a particular document has an official copyright registration a one-stop project. Keep in mind that an owner of a creative work that is not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office still has a common law copyright of the work. A work is under copyright protection the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Official registration only affects the owner's ability to sue for infringement under federal law.

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Copyright infringement is a big concern for companies that want to protect their photos and text. The law protects original works that are fixed in a tangible medium, such as written works, photos, movies, software, and songs. It's important to remember that a copyright protects original works but it does not protect mere ideas, such as a plot idea for a novel, or facts. Infringement generally occurs when an original work is reproduced without permission or citation. Companies can access a variety of online tools to check for copyright infringement.

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As established under Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, copyright promotes creativity by giving creators exclusive rights to profit from their work and protecting it against infringement. As the Copyright Office explains, this protection extends to original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, such as a book, movie, painting, and even a design printed on a T-shirt. However, not every logo on a tee is eligible for copyright protection.

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