Art Images

If you are considering digitizing an art image and posting or disseminating the digitized image online for purposes that fall outside of fair use, you must first determine the work’s copyright status.  This is true – even if the work of art is in University collections – as physical ownership of a work is separate from holding copyright in that work.  Information that may assist you with determining copyright status include the Public Domain and the Foreign Jurisdictions discussions (and their associated resources) in this tool.   A further consideration is whether your intended use of the image implicates the rightholder’s “moral rights” (see below).

For Artwork in Yale holdings

If you have determined that the work is still under copyright, check with the University unit holding the artwork to learn if copyright of the work was transferred to the University when the work was given to, or purchased by, the University.  If there is clear documentation that the University holds copyright to the work, the respective University unit would be the appropriate unit to approach for permission.

If the University does not hold copyright to the work

Where the University does not retain copyright, you would seek permission as with any third party holding rights.  You may use a format similar to the sample written request for permission on the University of Texas Libraries website for this purpose, setting forth the scope of the intended use.  

The copyright holder is usually the artist or the artist’s heirs or assigns, such as a foundation set up by the artist’s estate.  The following resources may assist your investigation of the copyright status and ownership of the work you wish to use:

  • WATCH file:  The WATCH (Writers, Artists, and Their Copyright Holders) file is a database containing primarily the names and addresses of copyright holders or contact persons for authors and artists whose archives are housed, in whole or in part, in libraries and archives in North American and the United Kingdom.
  • U.S. Copyright Office:  You can search a public database at the U.S. Copyright Office for copyright information on all works registered with the U.S. Copyright Office after January 1, 1978.

In most cases, the individual or entity granting consent for use of the work’s image will require you to agree to and comply with its terms and conditions.

A Note on Fair Use and Artwork

The application of the fair use doctrine to the use of art images follows a case-by-case analysis applying the four fair use factors.  There are cases that have provided clarity focusing on transformative use and the size of the image.  In particular, courts have affirmed the use of thumbnail reproductions under a range of circumstances although the size of thumbnails appears to be evolving.  

Modification and Moral Rights

Regardless of the copyright status of the work, including public domain works, consideration of “moral rights” may also be relevant to your intended use.  “Moral rights” refers to the rights of an artist to control the reputational integrity of his or her work once it has left the artist’s studio and is owned by others.  In general, moral rights include the right of the artists to receive attribution for their works, to disclaim attribution to works they did not create, and to prevent modification of alteration of their works. 

In the U.S., moral rights are personal to the artist, cannot be transferred, and expire upon the artist’s death.  Prior to modifying the work of any living American artist, you must seek the written permission of the artist for your intended use, even if you have determined that your intended use does not require copyright permission or if you have obtained copyright permission from the copyright holder who is not the artist.  In instances in which you have obtained copyright permission from the artist, make sure such permission includes a waiver of moral rights.

In other countries, moral rights may differ widely and may extend beyond the life of the artist.  For example, in France, moral rights survive in perpetuity and are so broad as to allow artists, or their descendants, to stop publications of their works, even those in public domain, so long as the use could be deemed to conflict with the artist’s original expression.  If you are concerned that your use may have moral rights implications, please consult the Office of the General Counsel for guidance.

Crediting the Artist

In every instance involving use of a work of art, you must provide a written credit line containing the title of the work, if any, and the name of the artist.

Summary:  Art images– Potential Rights Holders/Required Rights if not under Fair Use

University (if the University is the copyright holder)

  • Request written clearance from the appropriate University unit specifically for your intended use.

Artist (or artist’s heirs or assigns)

  • Send a written request to the copyright holder for specific permission to use the work and include a waiver of moral rights.  If applicable, the request should make the copyright holder aware that the digital reproduction of the artwork may be publicly accessible by search engines. 
  • When using the work in your digital project, be sure to include a written credit line containing the title of the work, if any, and the name of the artist (as well as meeting any additional terms and conditions required by the permission).