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.

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What Is Copyright Infraction?


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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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