Copyright exceptions to know before using public domain images

Copyright exceptions to know before using public domain images

John Rylands Library. Photo: Michael D. Beckwith / Wikimedia Commons.
John Rylands Library. Photo: Michael D. Beckwith / Wikimedia Commons.

Creative Commons (CC0) images are copyright free in most cases but here are some important exceptions you should know about before using them in your next design project.

It’s important to understand that “public domain” grants you permission use an image freely without asking permission from the image author but it’s your responsibility to make sure the depicted content doesn’t infringe on any rights.

1. Identifiable People

Just think for a moment, would you like to see your face on a billboard or website without being asked for permission?

Most people say “no” which is why identifiable people must give their consent for public usage of their images. You will first need a “Model Release” before using public domain images with identifiable people.

Take extra care that identifiable people do not appear in a bad light or in a way they might find offensive, unless they give your their written consent.

2. Private Property

When using pictures that contain clearly recognizable places, buildings, or other property (like cars and intellectual property), you must first get written permission from the property owner in the form of a “Property Release.”

For example, if you wanted to use an image of the Empire State Building in an ad for “Empire State Media” without a property release from the building owners, legal disputes are likely to result.

Under a property release, the property owner gives you permission to use pictures of their belongings including special cases where designs or seemingly public buildings are protected.

Examples of protected private property include:

  • New products like computers and mobile phones
  • Privately owned buildings in public places (think of the Chrysler Building in New York or the London Eye).
  • Logos
  • Artwork

Don’t ever suggest the endorsement of products or services by depicted people or organizations. As an example, don’t use an image of a public figure in a way that suggests that figure would recommend the product.

Exceptions for Editorial Use

It’s important to know that the rules above generally only apply when using pictures for commercial purposes, such as in advertisements or brochures. There is an important difference between editorial and commercial use.

If you are using a public domain image on your personal blog, that would be considered non-commercial, editorial usage. No model- or property release would be required.

Commercial use is loosely defined as any sort of business where you are engaged in commerce – the activity of buying and selling, especially on a large scale.

The Bottom Line

All of these rules may seem complicated or risky, but in reality, they aren’t. Put yourself in the position of a depicted person or property owner: Would you approve of the intended application without being asked for permission first? Consider this question before using a public domain image without a release.

Most importantly, remember that it’s your responsibility to be absolutely sure the depicted content is suitable for your application and it doesn’t infringe any rights. Don’t ever rely solely on verbal permission when seeking a release; always get it explicitly in writing.