Copyright Basics for the Health Sciences

Learn the basics of copyright law and the fair use guidelines from a health sciences perspective.

Using Images found Online

Scenario: Jack is hard at work on a scholarly article. To better explain his topic, he uses Google Image Search™ to find a recent photograph of the condition he's describing. He inserts the picture into his article, giving credit to the site from which he took it. Since he isn't trying to claim the image is his, can he use the image?

Providing a citation for an image he uses would be a good practice, but it does not replace the need to analyze the copyright status of the image.

Jack should look for the copyright information or image use policy on the site and read it very carefully to see what use the site allows.

Another option is to limit the Google Image Search to images that are licensed for reuse. To do this, run a search, select Tools--Usage Rights and then apply one of the reuse options.

Images with No Copyright Notice

Scenario: Suppose Jack looks around the website of an image he really wants to use, but cannot find any copyright information listed. None of the images have the © symbol next to them either. Jack figures this means they aren't copyrighted, so he's free to use them. Is he right?

No. In the U.S. after March 1, 1989, copyright protection applies automatically to works as soon as they are created, even if no copyright notice is attached. So even though there is no copyright notice on the website, as soon as the photographer took those photos, they became protected by copyright law. If Jack wants to use them, he'll have to contact the copyright owner to ask for permission or take advantage of a copyright exception. (Stanford Copyright and Fair Use Center)

Creative Commons Licenses

Scenario: What would it mean for Jack if he saw the statement "This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License" on the webpage?

That depends on what kind of Creative Commons license is used. For instance, a license labeled "by-nc-nd" or "Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works" allows users to reproduce the work so long as they attribute the work to its creator, make the license terms clear to anyone with whom they share the work, do not use it for commercial purposes, and do not change it or build on the original work.

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that provides copyright holders with a set of flexible licenses. Copyright holders can allow the public to use the work in certain ways without obtaining permission or paying royalties. However, images licensed under a Creative Commons license are still under copyright protection.  

Jack should check the terms of use for the specific Creative Commons license that the rights holder has applied.

Understanding Copyright Terms of Use

Scenario: Could Jack use the image if the copyright policy said this: Authors and researchers wishing to include this image in an article to be published in a scientific journal will usually be granted the right to reproduce the image on request(Adapted from DermIS)

Jack will probably need to request permission first; however, the website has made clear that if he makes the request, he stands a good chance of getting permission to include the image.

Scenario: Should Jack conclude that the rights holder is giving permission to use the image in a publication If the copyright policy said this: Images may be downloaded or reproduced for personal use only?

No. Publishing an image in a journal is not considered usually considered "personal use."

Scenario: Should Jack conclude that the rights holder is giving permission to use the image in a publication If the copyright policy said this: This image can be freely reproduced for non-commercial use only?

The rights holder's expectations will depend on the definition of non-commercial use.  Reproduction and publication in a for-profit journal will probably not be considered non-commercial use.  Use in an academic non-profit journal may meet the definition.  It may be necessary to check with the copyright holder to clarify.