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Images in the Health Sciences: Copyright © Protection

All Rights Reserved

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Image from Pixabay/geralt is licensed under CC0


When an image is protected by copyright, the holder of that copyright has four exclusive rights:

  1. To reproduce the copyrighted work
  2. Display the copyrighted work publicly
  3. Prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work
  4. Distribute copies of the copyrighted work to the public by sale, rental or lending, and/or to display the image

That means someone else cannot do these things without getting permission from the copyright holder, unless the specific use of the image falls under one of the limitations to copyright.

Section 110(1) - Face-to-Face Teaching

Section 110 of the U.S. Copyright law provides for the use of copyrighted materials in face-to-face teaching activities. The text of the law states:

(1) performance or display of a work by instructors or pupils in the course of face-to-face teaching activities of a nonprofit educational institution, in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction, unless, in the case of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, the performance, or the display of individual images, is given by means of a copy that was not lawfully made under this title, and that the person responsible for the performance knew or had reason to believe was not lawfully made . . .

Section 110(2) - Instructional Activities Transmitted via Digital Networks

Section 110(2), also known as the TEACH Act, provides exceptions for online learning. These exceptions are not as broad as those granted to face-to-face teaching. Additionally, this portion of the law sets out guidelines and requirements of the educational institution as well as individual instructors.

Section 107 - Fair Use

Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright law provides for the use of copyrighted materials under certain circumstances defined as “fair use.” The law lists required criteria to determine if a particular use can be considered fair use under the law.

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantially of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

When considering whether using an image would fall under Fair Use, each of the above factors must be taken into consideration. Typically, using a copyrighted image in a classroom presentation or handout is considered Fair Use while using a copyrighted image in a published book is not.


The following resources explain more about the exceptions to copyright and how to determine if the exceptions apply to a given use.

Using copyrighted images can be more complex than other types of media. If none of the exceptions for copyright apply to a particular use, then permission will be needed for the work. A user of the work should plan to obtain permission from not only the copyright owner of the work (i.e., the creator of the work) but also from the owner of the physical object (e.g., a museum, archive, or individual) if the owner of the object is not the creator. Where photographs depict private individuals in private settings, permission may be needed from those in the photo (see the Privacy & Publicity Rights section of this guide).

Teaching & Fair Use Exceptions

When citing copyright protected images used in a way that falls under one of the exceptions of copyright, usual rules of citation should be followed to give credit to the source and to avoid plagiarism.

Permission Granted

When copyright owners grant permission for someone to use their work, they may specify exactly how their work should be credited. These specifications should be followed. Generally, a credit line with all pertinent information should be places next to the image or in some cases, an abbreviated credit line may appear next to the image with a full reference occurring elsewhere (e.g. in the bibliography).