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Sudden Shower over Shin Ohashi Bridge and Atake, 1857, Art Institute of Chicago. (Photograph provided by the Art Institute of Chicago)
Disclaimer: This page is intended only to provide general information on copyright, and should not be cited in defense of any particular use of protected works or images. Always consult a copyright professional if you have questions.
All images in the Visual Resources Center are subject to copyright law. These images are intended solely for purposes of teaching, scholarship, and research at the University of Delaware, and may not be used for any commercial purposes. Images in the Visual Resources Center may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, or likewise. It is the sole responsibility of the user to secure any and all permissions from the appropriate copyright owners before publishing an image or using it in anything but a nonprofit, educational capacity. The Visual Resources Center does not own the copyright to any of the materials in its collection, and cannot grant any requests for permission to reproduce these materials.
Like an author's book, an artist's work of art (e.g., painting, sculpture, photograph) is considered the intellectual property of the person who created it. Copyright is a legal means of protecting a person's intellectual property from unauthorized use by others. Copyright can apply to the work of art itself, but also to a photographic reproduction of that work of art, as well as to a book in which that photographic reproduction is published.
The protection of intellectual property under United States law is authorized in
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution. Today,
Title 17 of the United States Code defines exactly what qualifies for copyright protection, and stipulates
how long that protection will last before a work eventually passes into the public domain.
Copyright protection extends for a fixed number of years after either the creation of a work, the publication of a work, or the death of the artist or author, depending on the case. Under current law, copyright on works of art created by a known artist generally expires 70 years after the artist's death. Whenever the artist's death date cannot be established (either the artist is unknown or a corporate body is considered to be the artist), works are covered for 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever comes first.
Architectural works (i.e., buildings) completed before 1990 are not typically protected by copyright. However, an architect's drawings are treated as works of art, and would therefore be protected for 70 years after the architect's death. Architectural works completed in 1990 or later are generally protected by copyright. However, if a copyrighted architectural work is in a public place, you are permitted to photograph it without infringing upon the architect's copyright.
Works that are no longer protected by copyright are said to be in the public domain. Most works made prior to the 20th century fall into this category. Anyone may freely reproduce public-domain works.
However, even if a
work of art is itself in the public domain, a given photographic
image of it may not be. Unless you yourself made the photograph of the public-domain work in person, an image of that work is probably copyrighted by someone else. Professional photographers, museums, and publishers usually require permission (and often a fee) before you can reproduce their images of public-domain works from sources like websites or books.
For works of art that are already in the public domain, some cultural institutions have implemented open-access policies, which allow you to download and use images of these works without having to obtain permission or pay a fee. In many cases you are free to use these images however you wish, but sometimes there are additional restrictions and stipulations, so pay close attention to each institution's rights statement. Open-access policies apply only to the images, and not to the works of art themselves, so copyrighted works made since about 1900 are generally excluded. For more information, consult the Visual Resources Center's
Guide to Open Digital Image Collections and list of
All of the images on the Visual Resources Center's web pages come from open-access sources.
Copyrighted materials are permitted in the Visual Resources Center because of the
fair use limitation to copyright protection, which allows them to be used for purposes that are educational and non-commercial in nature. Because of fair use, instructors may show these images in the classroom, and students may use them to illustrate their own class assignments. However, publishing these images in a book or posting them on an unrestricted website is
not considered fair use.
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