Create Your Art

What about old photos?

Major legislation to copyright law in 1976 and 1989 has made changes to the length of time copyright lasts on images. Images taken before 1976 may no longer be covered by copyright. Cornell University has a great website showing copyright terms. Knowing the year the photo was taken, you will be able to use this site to determine if the copyright is still valid.

What if I have a print but there is no copyright notice on it and I don’t know who took it?

Photos and prints with no known owner or creator are considered “Orphan Works.” Legislation regarding use of Orphan Works is pending debate in Congress and has not been signed into law yet.  As it currently stands, you are legally not allowed to use an image that is not yours even if it has no valid copyright information with it.  The intent of the Orphan Works bill is to make it possible for publishers, educational institutions, museums, private citizens and so on to use unattributed work once a diligent good faith attempt has been made to determine the owner of the work. Learn more about the current debate over Orphan Works legislation at these sites:

Are there any resources to find images that are in the public domain?

Images taken by or made for the US Government are in the public domain and you can  usually find free, high-resolution images of the photos and download them from your home computer. Some popular public domain photos include images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, Farm Securities Administration photos from the Great Depression and other historical postcards/ posters/ illustrations and photos owned by the US Government.

What if I found the photo online?

Just because an image is visible on the internet does not mean that it is “public domain” it is still protected by copyright even if there is no © notice. These images are usually very low resolution to make for easy web display but will become very pixilated and blurry if you attempt to print it.

I found the hi-res file on Flickr, but what do the symbols mean?

“Creative Commons” is a common license found online that photographers use to allow others certain rights to reproduce their images. This is not a copyright release or reprint permission, but merely a license for other to use the photo for specific purposes.  Using images with a Creative Commons license always requires attribution (meaning if you post the image on your own site you need to say “Photo by John Smith” and usually they request a link back to where you found the original image). It may have other requirements as described below:

Creative Commons Licenses


This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work, even commercially, as long as they credit the owner for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with works licensed under Attribution.

Attribution - Share Alike

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on it will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.

Attribution - No Derivatives

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to the owner.

Attribution Non-Commercial

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don't have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon the work non-commercially, as long as they credit the owner and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute the work just like the “Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives” license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on the work. All new work based on the original will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download the works and share them with others as long as they mention and link back to the owner, but they can't change them in any way or use them commercially.

Read all the details and search for available images on their website

What if the copyright owner is no longer alive?

Current law places a copyright term limit of 70 years past the owner's death. However, some images created before 1989 may be available even if the owner is alive or recently deceased.

I paid for the print, can't I do whatever I want with it?

When you purchase a photo print, poster, post card or other printed image you are essentially pay for license to have and display only that print. You do not have the legal right to scan and reproduce that image in any other form. If you want to make a copy of the image, you need to contact the original photographer or artist and ask for permission to do so.

What about stock photos purchased online?

Licensing stock photos online gives you certain rights to reproduce the image, depending on the terms and whether it is Royalty-Free or not. When purchasing, be sure to read the usage details of the license agreement to make sure what you plan to do does not violate copyright.

For example, popular stock photo site iStock Photo allows for the following uses with their standard license agreement, excluding resale or distribution:

  1. Advertising and promotional projects, including printed materials, product packaging, presentations, film and video presentations, commercials, catalogues, brochures, promotional greeting cards and promotional postcards (ie. not for resale or license);
  2. Entertainment applications, such as books and book covers, magazines, newspapers, editorials, newsletters, and video, broadcast and theatrical presentations;
  3. On-line or electronic publications, including web pages to a maximum of 800 x 600 pixels for image or illustration Content or to a maximum of 640x480 for video Content;
  4. Prints, posters (i.e. a hardcopy) and other reproductions for personal use or promotional purposes specified in (1) above, but not for resale, license or other distribution; and any other uses approved in writing by iStockphoto.

iStock also allows additional options such as resale and distribution of the images purchased online with an “extended license” addendum which costs more. View the details on their website

My photographer gave me a disc of hi-res images, can I print them?

When a professional photographer gives you a disc of high resolution images they usually give you reprint permission along with it. There may be restrictions to just how much you can do with them, so be sure to read any papers you received with the disc or ask your photographer if something is unclear to you. If the file has a copyright notice in it we may ask to see reprint permission and you would need to provide documentation from the photographer that you are allowed to reproduce the image.

It's just for my personal use, I won't make any money off it, can I copy it then?

The simple answer is no. The only reason you may use a copyrighted image without explicit permission falls within “Fair Use.” This refers to reproduction of a copyrighted work that is 'fair' and for the purpose of parody, criticism, comment, new reporting, education, scholarship and research. It also takes into account the potential market value of the use and the portion of the original work used. Guidelines from the Copyright Office on Fair Use are here:

How do you (Canvas Press) know an image is copyrighted?

Images that have a copyright notice written on or embedded in the file we check that name against the customer ordering. If they are not the same we'll contact you to ask about getting documentation of reprint permission.

What will happen to me if I print a copyrighted image?

If you knowingly violate copyright by printing copyrighted photos for personal use, you are liable to pay damages to the copyright owner. If the image is registered with the copyright office you may be required to pay statutory damages and all attorney fees. By ordering from Canvas Press and accepting our Terms of Service you accept responsibility for ensuring you have proper permission and license to reproduce the image.

How do I get permission?

Sometimes it is as easy as simply asking! Many photo studios will hand you a release to copy the prints you buy if you ask for it, and if you purchase hi-res files from your photographer they will likely also include a release. Some places may want to charge extra for this or they may not allow it at all, preferring to have you order all copies and products directly through them.

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