In this question, I included a link to a diagram that was essential to understanding the question. @Tester101 edited the question to include a copy of the actual image.

For future reference, is there a particular reason this image could be included without permission from the original site, or are all images considered fair use?

3 Answers 3


If you can copy the image it's better to upload it to Stack Exchange's imgur account as that way we can be sure that the image will always be available. Otherwise, if the current location of the image changes then the link will become useless.

If you are copying an image you should acknowledge the source.

If the site explicitly forbids the copying of images then it's probably OK just to link to it, but it might be better to find an alternative or create a new image yourself (if possible).


Copying images without permission may be a copyright violation. The person who creates an image (or a piece of text or music) owns that work and has the right to decide how and when it is used, including where and when it can be copied and distributed. There are numerous factors must be considered to figure out whether copying and posting of an image is permitted.

Public Domain

If something is in the public domain, anyone can use it freely. HOWEVER very few images on the internet are in the public domain. Usually they are limited to images:

  • created before the early 1920s,
  • created by or for US government agencies, or
  • that the owner (usually the photographer, the artist or their employer) has explicitly dedicated to the public domain.

That is practically none of the images that appear on the internet. Unless something explicitly says it is in the public domain, you have to assume it is not.

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, the placement of images on the web DOES NOT place them in the public domain.

Self Created Images

If the poster made it, she owns it (unless she did it in connection with her employment).

Licensed Use

If the owner of an image gives you permission to use it, it is licensed and you can use it in the manner and to the extent that the owner has explicitly allowed. But only in that manner and to that extent. Any other use is a copyright violation.

If you find an image, check the site (e.g., the LEGAL section) to see if there is a license, and what it allows. If there is no indication, that means IT IS NOT LICENSED.

There are some specialized licenses, such as Creative Commons, that allow extensive use, but have certain requirements about how a work is distributed and what notices are required.

Fair Use

This is the hard one. The use of some copyrighted materials may be allowed without the owner's permission if it meets the criteria of the Fair Use Doctrine. This allows certain uses that are not likely to diminish the interests of the owners of the copyright. For example, certain specific educational uses are allowed. Other uses may be allowed if they are not likely to compromise the intent and commercial interests of the owner. There are four factors that are generally considered and weighed to determine if a particular use meets the fair use criteria:

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality 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

As you can see, these factors are not simple yes/no questions. There is often no bright line to indicate whether a use would be permitted. A fuller discussion of fair use can be found at the Copyright Office website here.


[What follows is merely an viewpoint, and not a description of the policy of this site, or a statement about the law or the reaction that an owner of an image may hold.]

One approach that may meet the fair use criteria is the inclusion of images from commercial sites if you also include links to those sites. For example, if a manufacturer or distributor shows a product image on its site, they are likely to either own or have permission to use that image, and are not likely to object to you copying that image if you link back to their site. This forum does not encourage promotion of any commercial product or site, but such a link, for illustrative purposes only, would probably not raise the ire of this forum or the linked company. It would also be a good idea to insert a notation that makes clear that the link in not an endorsement.

Lifting images from sites that rely on images to promote their own interests is unlikely to meet the fair use test. Lifting copies of images that the owner seeks to sell (e.g., stock photos, plans to be download for a fee) is definitely not allowed. Use of images from sites that offer information similar to this site (competitors) is likely to bring the Wrath of Khan (or the Revenge of the Lannisters, depending on your own pop-cultural star) down upon you.


Your own stuff is the best. Your friends' stuff they said you could use, next best. Everything else, take care and think about the factors laid out in the fair use doctrine. Often, if an unauthorized use is objected to by an owner, removal of the offending image may be enough to resolve the problem. But tread cautiously.


This is hardly a gray area: copying images from other sites is a violation of copyright. Pinterest gets away with it, mostly, via slight of hand since every image links to the source.

Look up The Berne Convention and "fair uses" for more background on this, along with the DMCA for servers hosted in the USA.

  • Aren't all images on the internet in the public domain, or available via fair use? If not, I don't think it's a violation anyway, until the author enforces the copyright.
    – Tester101
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 18:03
  • 4
    Absolutely not. Is shoplifting a crime only if the shop owner enforces her property rights?
    – Bryce
    Commented Nov 26, 2013 at 22:43
  • Yes. Any crime is only a crime, if enforced. If you commit a crime and are not caught (or are found not guilty in court), then you did not commit a crime. At which point it becomes a moral issue, not a legal one.
    – Tester101
    Commented Nov 27, 2013 at 12:14
  • 3
    @Tester101 that's clearly a minority opinion, if that, in the law enforcement community. If you are eventually caught, you may well have prior offenses discovered, and be charged for those as well. That goes both for shoplifting and imagelifting. If I find one of my images on SE I will issue a DMCA takedown notice, and can be quite certain of 24 hour or less turnaround. Copyright, unlike trademark, does not need to be enforced to be valid. Take it to a legal stack if you need a 2nd opinion.
    – Bryce
    Commented Dec 21, 2013 at 17:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .