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A comprehensive guide to fair use images

by Casey Schmidt  |  February 17, 2020

4 min. read
'All rights reserved' rubber stamp.

Over the past twenty years, digital content directly changed numerous images’ accessibility levels. As a result, determining when an image is fair use is complex. It’s become increasingly more important to stay informed and ensure all your digital content procedures are correct and legal. Here’s an extensive guide to fair use images.

What is a fair use image?

Fair use images are pictures that are open for users to adopt and publish. A digital image falls under fair use so long as particular guidelines are followed. These guideline categories typically include educational, research, and personal use with some stipulations.

A camera on a computer desk.
Fair use gives users permissions for certain images.

Think of a fair use image like a picture off a public domain or a stock photo site. You’re able to use these files to your liking so long as you respect the wishes of the creators. Also, it’s important to note that fair use evolved fairly recently due to the changes in the way we take and store photographs. Because a lot of images are digital, we have different rules in place. Let’s make sure you understand the way fair use is applied in today’s digital climate.

The digital adaptation of fair use

In the past, a photograph, painting or drawing was singular and there was a way to tell the original from a copy. For this reason, fair use was much easier to apply and enforce. However, digital images have made it so original works of photographers duplicate effortlessly. As such, fair use adapted for digital images to ensure protection of copyrighted works. When considering the new landscape of fair use, think of the difference between copying a physical painting versus copying an image on a computer. Certainly, the level of effort and detail when copying a physical painting is immense. Copying an image digitally, no matter how complex, is done with the click of a mouse.

A collection of paintings on a shelf.
Before the digital boom, fair use was much less complicated.

Fair use for online/digital images became defined as every picture available so long as users followed general image guidelines. Fair use was enacted on digital images if the downloader or copier followed any rules or restrictions attached to the file. Lastly, a big part of the digital boom included social media, where images are shared and posted frequently. This brought up new regulations immediately.

Fair use in the social media age

The popularization of social media changed the way many of us share images. Because of this, users needed a basic understanding of fair use to be within legal rights. This is important now more than ever because of apps and social media sites aimed exclusively toward images (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.). Note that these popular sites change and evolve drastically, so fair use will evolve alongside these changes.

A mobile device with social media icons on it.
Social media contains a lot of shared images.

Here’s how to identify what’s fair use or not on social media. It boils down to the original uploader’s photo. If the picture’s uploaded to the social media site for the public to see, it is fair use to reuse the image. However, if the owner stored it privately and someone obtained it unfairly, it’s not fair use. Understand the original uploader’s intentions to cover your bases.

How to further protect your image rights

Companies looking to clarify their image fair use need tools such as digital rights management (DAM) to ensure security and simplify license information. With the continuously changing outlook of copyright laws due to digital evolution, a digital rights management system ensures companies stay within copyright usage and protections. It does this with unique security features designed to protect owned images.

A picture of a copyright logo.
Digital rights management ensures images retain copyright.

Watermarks are an important way to ensure images are within fair use guidelines. Placing watermarks onto images before uploading them into cloud systems and online spaces ensures image control. It also lets the original owner investigate whether or not users applying to download the unmarked image will stay within fair use. DAM gives companies a chance to easily apply extensive watermarks to their images. It even automates the process, reducing excessive protection efforts.

When it comes to fair use of images, make sure you’re following known guidelines to stay safe. Ultimately, fair use doesn’t necessarily mean free to use. Ensure you know the difference!