Confused about copyrights? We’re here to help! Whether you’re using digital images for personal or commercial use, we have the essentials you need to stay within the limits of the law.  



Explore these words and terms:

Copyright definition

Copyright is a form of protection provided by law to the creators of “original works of authorship.” By virtue of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, works are protected in all 160 countries which are party to the Convention, as well as various other laws such as the US Copyright Act.

Copyright protection

From the moment a photo or other image is created, it’s automatically protected by copyright. This applies to all original creative works of authorship (including literary works and all text, including computer software); musical works and sound recordings; dramatic works, pantomimes and choreographic works; pictorial, graphic and sculptural works (including photographs, illustrations and computer-generated graphics); motion pictures and other audiovisual works; and architectural works.

Copyright protection does not apply to ideas, concepts or discoveries; titles, names, short phrases and slogans; works that aren’t fixed in a tangible form of expression, such as improvised speech or dance; works consisting entirely of information that’s commonly available and contains no originality; and anything written or created by the US government.

Copyright ownership

Copyright ownership belongs to any artist who creates a copyrighted work, or any employer whose employees create copyrighted works as part of their job. Copyright owners hold exclusive rights that allow others to make and distribute copies of the work, perform the work publicly (such as for plays, film or music), display the work publicly (such as for artwork or any material used on the Internet or television) and make derivative works (including making modifications, adaptations or other new uses of a work, or translating the work to another media).

Copyright limitations

“Fair use” is an exception to the exclusive rights held by the copyright owner.

It allows limited copying of copyrighted works — without the owner’s permission — for education and research purposes. Since allowable uses vary by country, it’s best to seek independent legal advice before using any copyrighted material without permission.

Works that are in the public domain are not protected by copyright, so they are free and available for unrestricted use. While the duration of copyright varies for different types of work and from country to country, any work published before 1923 or works that have fallen out of copyright for failure to register or renew under the 1909 Act are considered to be in the public domain. Currently, the default term of a copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years.

Nonexclusive rights can be transferred without written notice. Transfer of exclusive rights requires written notice signed by the copyright holder or authorized representative.

Copyright permission

Copyright permission is required because an image always belongs to someone — either the photographer/artist who made it, or a third party who owns the copyright. Copyright law gives the owner the right to control use of their image. Commercial licenses enable artists to earn fees to make a living and to continue creating more great content. While many copyright owners want their image to be used and seen, there may be restrictions on how, when or where the image may be used, or the image may have been licensed for exclusive use to someone else.

 Copyright infringement

Use of an image without a valid license is considered copyright infringement in violation of copyright laws. Copyright infringement is any violation of the exclusive rights of the creator or rights holder. Examples of imagery infringement may include use of whole or part of an image without permission, use beyond the scope of a license or permission, adapting an image without permission (art rendering) or asking another photographer to identically recreate the image.

When infringement occurs, responsible parties may include the party (the person who stole the image in the first place) that infringed the copyright, even if it was unintentional, employees or others who participated in the original infringement, anyone who published the infringing image, whether they had knowledge or not, or anyone who authorized or encouraged infringement. Infringement of copyright may result in monetary damages, lawsuits, costly legal fees and, in rare circumstances, criminal charges.

Using images legally

With so many photos floating around in our right-click, save-and-share world, it’s easier than ever to download an image. But no matter where images are posted, they are most likely subject to copyright and other legal rights. Using an image without looking for the copyright holder or obtaining the proper permission can result in legal violations.

And with the growth of new tracking technology, chances are you may get caught if you use an image without permission in the form of a license. Sophisticated image-scanning services scour the Web looking for unlicensed imagery to ensure our photographers are paid for any commercial use. Aside from the financial cost (which could be more than the original license fee), resolving copyright infringement takes time and resources better spent on building your business. It makes more sense to avoid copyright violations and protect your company and your clients by first securing permission to use any image.

 Legal and ethical image sources

Using an image library is the best way to stay within safe and legal copyright boundaries. Our companies, which include iStock by Getty Images, have model and property releases and clear, easy-to-understand licensing agreements so you can confidently use the right image, in the right size, for your specific needs. With a wide variety of image licenses available, you can rest assured that you’re always on the right side of the copyright law.

More sources for where to find images.

Licensing images for commercial use

Interested in how licensing works for commercial use? We represent images, video and music created and owned by some of the world’s best artists and we license exclusive digital content to businesses and other organizations across the globe.

All imagery and digital content on our websites is copyrighted and may only be used with permission in the form of a license. Our license terms are accessible from every page of our websites.

To find out more, check out all of our license agreements.



To help you become better acquainted with copyright usage, we’ve compiled a list of common terms used throughout our site along with a list of resources for accessing more in-depth information.

Appropriating work is the practice of intentionally borrowing, copying or altering existing images from another context to create new works of art.

Attribution is the act of establishing a particular person as the creator of a work of art.

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the creators of “original works of authorship.” By virtue of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, works are protected in all 160 countries that are party to the Convention.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the range of creative works available for others to legally build upon and share. Offering several free copyright licenses, creators are able to determine which rights they reserve — and which rights they waive — for the benefit of recipients or other creators.

Derivative work is a work that is based on or derived from one or more already existing works. Whenever you take an existing image and modify it to create a different image, you are making a “derivative work.”

Embed is a new Getty Images feature that makes it easy, legal and free to share images for noncommercial use on blogs, social media and websites. To protect creators’ rights, embedded images include photographer attribution and links back to us, where the image can be licensed for commercial use.

Fair use is one of several legal limitations on the exclusive rights granted to copyright owners. It allows people other than the copyright holder to copy part or, in some circumstances, all of a copyrighted work, even where the copyright holder has not given permission or objects.

Four factors refer to the guidelines courts use on a case-by-case basis to evaluate fair use claims: the purpose and character of the use of the copyrighted work, the nature of the original work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole and the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the original work.

License is the permission granted by the copyright holder to copy, distribute, display, transform and/or perform a copyrighted work.

Public domain refers to works that are not restricted by copyright and do not require a license or fee to use. Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited or are inapplicable.

The duration of copyright varies for different types of work and from country to country. The following are examples of public domain in the US:

• All works published before 1923; and
• Works out of copyright or works that have fallen out of copyright for failure to register or renew under the 1909 Act or for lack of notice before 1989.

Release is written permission from an individual or property owner allowing the use of that person’s likeness or property (e.g., a private home, a place of business, a copyrighted work of art or, in some cases, an animal) in an image for commercial purposes.

Property and model releases are legally binding documents that indicate that the model or property representative grants their permission to use their likeness for commercial purposes. The purpose of the release is to ensure that you have permission of the model or property owner and to protect you from any future lawsuits for claims arising from defamation and invasion of privacy disputes.

Royalty-free means that, once licensed, an image may be used many times for certain uses without paying further fees — but the initial license is necessary to protect yourself and your clients.

Trademark allows protection of short phrases, distinctive words, titles, slogans, symbols, logos and other devices used to distinguish products, services and images from others.

We are deeply committed to protecting the interests, intellectual property rights and livelihood of the photographers, filmmakers and artists who trust us to market their work. Commercial licenses enable artists to earn fees to make a living, run their businesses and continue creating more great content. Use of an image without a valid license is considered copyright infringement in violation of copyright laws.

More information about copyright