When it comes to citing text from someone else's work, the rule is to provide a proper citation and source. Once you do that, you're off the hook. But when it comes to copying images it seems to be more complicated. There are copyright rules, and I read online that you always need to contact the author before using images. But if I provide a proper source for the images I copy, why should it be any different from citing text (which is fine)? Furthermore, it is not always possible to contact the author for permission of use; for example, what am I to do if the author is not alive anymore (say I want to copy images from a book published in the 1930s)?

So I need some guidance here, what is really permitted when copying images from books and other sources?

  • I think that when an author dies, their copyrights typically go to their families if they haven't been transferred anywhere else.
    – Dinopolis
    Nov 9, 2017 at 14:00

2 Answers 2


In scholarly writing, citing images works the same as citing text. There is copyright on the text just as there is copyright on the image, and if you (a) give the source and (b) limit your citation to what is necessary in the context of your discussion (see fair use), then citing an illustration or table or diagram is perfectly fine, and you don't have to obtain permission for your citation.

Only in non-scholarly writing is the use of copyrighted images problematic and you should obtain permission for your use.


Many media from 1920s-1977 copyright law change had DIFFERENT rules for copyright. Post 1977, works were automatically granted copyright upon creation. Before then, works HAD to be registered and renewed, and sometimes due to weird loopholes, works may "slip" into public domain (PD).

This is why many SF stories that were in magazines are PD, and how It's a Wonderful Life became PD and thus all over TV.

Illustrations if part of a work (like a brain diagram in a textbook) normally follow the same rules as the larger work, but if, say, it's a pic of a brain-eating monster drawn in an SF magazine, while the text may be PD, the artist may have actively renewed hir copyright (if possible).

Within academia, fair use is way more generous. If you are a student doing a project, just cite things.

If it's for (academic) publication, your University or college library probably has a Rights expert to help you, or someone from publications/legal.

Pros have to disclose to their editors any potential rights issues (like song lyrics) so they can plan the approach...if it's better to substitute an easier song, or if it's essential. There's a great documentary on Archive.org about documentarians having to "alter reality" due to rights conflicts.

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