A Comprehensive Guide to Fair Use Images


The process of determining when an image is fair use is complex, especially now that digital content changed the accessibility of numerous images. Stay informed to make sure all your digital content procedures are correct and legal.

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. Confidently 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.

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.

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 if the users followed a group of general guidelines concerning the image. 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.

Fair Use in the Social Media Age

The popularization of social media changed the way many of us share images. Because of this, users need 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.).

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. Ensure the intentions of the original uploader are clearly understood 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 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.

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.

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.