Securing Image Rights for your Publication

Scholarly publications often include images. From reproductions of fine art to scientific graphs, images can enhance an author’s work in many ways. Most publishers require images with a resolution of at least 300 ppi, so using clear, high quality images is imperative. However, there are many copyright and intellectual property concerns when using images, and the process of obtaining permission can be complicated and can require a large amount of time and occasionally money from the author. The following blog post provides a walk-through, as well as tips and resources, for obtaining image permissions. We suggest following a four-step procedure to facilitate the process of securing image use permission: 

  1. Identifying permission needs
  2. Identity the rights owner
  3. Identify the rights needed
  4. Contact the owner and negotiate if necessary

As copyright and terms of reuse can vary greatly per image, the permissions attainment process begins with identifying your permission needs.

Identifying Permission Needs

Not all images require written permission for use. An image can be freely used if it is in the public domain, has a Creative Commons (CC) license, or qualifies for fair use. In general, all works first published in the United States before 1925 are part of the public domain. Cornell University’s Public Domain Chart provides a clear and thorough resource for determining if  an image first published in the United States is in the public domain. A list of other countries’ copyright durations is available from Wikipedia. Keep in mind that even if a work is public domain, an image of that work is not necessarily in the public domain. For example, while the works of Shakespeare are in the public domain, a museum’s image of a particular folio may have different rights. Be sure to confirm that your image, and not just the original work, are in the public domain. 

One way to do this is to check for the Public Domain Mark:

The letter "C" inside a circle with a slash-through (Public Domain Mark)

The Creative Commons public domain designation enables them to donate their work to the public domain. If the image you wish to use is marked with a Creative Commons license, you do not need to ask permission to use it in your publication. 

There are also many different types of CC licenses, so be sure to determine the use parameters of your specific CC-licensed image. These include Attribution (BY), ShareAlike (SA), NoDerivs (ND), NonCommercial (NC), and various combinations thereof. The Creative Commons’s webpage provides information about each CC license to clarify and differentiate between the various CC licenses. 

Use of an image for purposes of criticism, commentary, research, or teaching might also qualify as a fair use, an overview and definition of which can be found on the U.S. Copyright Office’s Fair Use Index webpage, is a fact-dependent limitation on the exclusive rights of copyright owners. For additional guidance on whether your use of an image is a potential fair use, refer to the IU Libraries guide on fair use, or contact the Head of the Libraries’ Copyright Program, Naz Pantaloni (nazapant@indiana.edu)

Asking for Permission

The first step in asking for permission is to identify the rights owner. Keep in mind that the creator and the rights owner are not necessarily the same. Sometimes the rights owner will be clearly marked. For example, if the image’s metadata reads “Copyright 2020, Indiana University Press”, then you would contact Indiana University Press to request permission. Others are more difficult, and require some research to determine the rights owner. Tips for researching the rights owner include: looking for contact information, checking for a watermark, checking the image’s metadata, and doing a Google reverse image search. Resources like the the US Copyright office, which provides a database where you can search the copyright of a particular image, can help identity the rights owner. 

After the rights owner is identified, you must determine the rights you need. Be sure to consider medium, duration, language, and territory. Your publisher may have required rights for image use, so be sure to confirm with them before contacting the rights owner. Once you have identified the rights owner, you can contact the rights owner and formally request permission to use the image. While each situation will differ, Oxford Journals’ template permission request letter and Georgetown University’s sample permission request letter provide possible examples of how to structure a request letter. Be prepared for patience after contacting the rights owner; many publishers can take between 4-6 weeks to respond, if at all. Also be prepared for fees, as rights owners may ask you to pay to use the images; you can, however, try to negotiate fees with the rights owner. 

Be sure to have a back-up plan, as even if you have followed all of the steps, the rights owner may either not respond or deny your request. The following section provides resources for finding open images, as well as suggested best practices to follow during the permissions process. 

Conclusion and tips/resources

While securing image use permissions can be complicated, there are several ways to help the process go more smoothly. The first is to focus on finding open images, thus nullifying the need to obtain permission. Wikimedia Commons hosts a repository of free-use images and Georgetown University provides a helpful list of places to find open images. If you do have to ask permission, be sure to plan ahead and keep clear and thorough documentation of all correspondences. It is best to ask for non-exclusive, worldwide rights for the lifetime of the image in both print and electronic formats. This assures that you will not have to re-obtain permissions for any reprints, translations, etc. of your publication. Also be sure to keep all original citation information for each image, to expedite your captioning. While the permissions process will look different for each author, these guidelines facilitate the process. They can also serve as a useful resource for journal managers and editors to provide to authors. 

Additional information on using images is available in this guide to using images from the IU LIbraries Copyright Program. For further questions or concerns regarding using images in scholarly publication, please contact Copyright Program,  Naz Pantaloni, at nazapant@indiana.edu.