Our Permissions Controller for the digitisation of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England, Rachael Lazenby, has written an introductory guide to copyright for images, drawing on her experience on this project and on other work that she has done. This is part one of Rachael’s guide; the second part will follow shortly.

Copyright and images – an introductory guide

Rachael Lazenby

I’ve recently been working on the project to digitise the inventory volumes of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England (RCHME). Some of the volumes are already live and can be accessed here.

My role has been to identify all images which were not provided by the Commission and seek permission to reuse them on British History Online. A full report on the methodology I devised for this work along with the results is freely available and is published here.

The work has touched upon many issues relating to copyright which are common when using images in research and so I thought it would be useful to explain some of the basics of copyright, how it affects images in particular, along with providing links to various resources available online.

Lammerside Castle, Wharton (1)

Definition of Copyright

Where better to start than with a definition of what copyright actually is:

the exclusive and assignable legal right, given to the originator for a fixed number of years, to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material (2)

A key feature of copyright is that it arises in a work the moment it is created by the originator. It does not have to be registered in the way that a patent might be for a process or a product. It is also important to note that ideas are not subject to copyright – it is the expression of ideas that is subject to copyright. This expression might be a photograph, a piece of text, a musical score or a painting. Copyright may be assigned by the originator to another party or waived by the copyright holder in certain circumstances.

Wherever an originator chooses to display or publish their work the copyright of the work remains with them unless they explicitly assign it to another party or until a fixed number of years have passed after their death. Copyright law varies country by country but in the UK a work remains in copyright until 70 years after the death of the creator at which point it passes into the public domain.

Misconceptions about the right to use images, especially those appearing online, abound.  One of the most common is that if an image does not appear with the copyright symbol and a named copyright holder it is not protected by copyright law. Although such copyright notices can help identify a copyright holder, images without this symbol are still protected by copyright law.  An image that is publicly accessible is still protected by copyright and an image being publicly accessible does not mean it is in the public domain. Copyright protects a work from any unauthorised use. Even if the reproduction of an image is not commercial, for example if it appears in a blog post, it is not legal without the permission of the originator.

Reproducing art and photographs

Cases involving paintings and drawings which are owned by museums can be complex. For example, should you wish to reproduce a photo of a painting by a living artist, you will have to gain permission from the artist, in addition to the permission of the organisation who owns the photo. It is frequently the case that photography is not permitted in museums and galleries, but if you have taken the photo yourself, and the composition is artistic and takes in more than just the painting itself, it may not be necessary to obtain permission. If an artist is deceased you may have to approach their estate for permission to reproduce an image if they have died within the last 70 years.

There are some organisations which specialise in sourcing paintings and drawings and for a fee will make available a high resolution scan of the work as well as arranging permission for an image to be used. Some UK based examples include the Mary Evans Picture Library specialising in historical images, and the Bridgeman Art Library.(3) Many national and university libraries also have extensive image collections which they are making available to students, researchers and commercial parties (although there are often charges for the service).

A great source of historical images with no known copyright restrictions can be found on the Flickr website: http://www.flickr.com/commons/ Their Creative Commons area is a project making freely available content from museums and galleries across the world. They also encourage tagging of the 
images to increase information available about the content.

The Ley, Woebley (4)

For images which have previously appeared in print or online, it is usually the publisher who can advise on who the copyright holder is, and how permission to reproduce an image can be obtained. The originator of an image might have transferred copyright to a publisher permanently, usually termed ‘assigning copyright’, or they might have granted permission for it to be used only in a specific publication in which case it is referred to as granting a licence.

Licences to use images in publications including online projects will state where and how images can be used. So for example to illustrate this article I can use an image which is now owned by English Heritage, as they have given us permission to use images to promote the digitisation of the RCHME volumes. I could also use any images which are now out of copyright. I cannot use images in this post which have been cleared for use in the volumes by outside parties as permission does not extend to any other use of the image.


1. Lammerside Castle, Wharton. Royal Commission on Historic Monuments of England, Westmorland (1936) plate 80 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=120920 retrieved 23/2/2013
2. http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/copyright retrieved 7/12/12
3. http://www.bridgemanart.com/  http://www.maryevans.com/
4. The Ley, Woebley. Royal Commissions on the Historical Monuments of England, Herefordshire: Volume 3 North West (1934) plate 176 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=124854 retrieved 23/2/2013
5. Plan of Ramsey Abbey. Royal Commissions on the Historical Monuments of England, Huntingdonshire (1926) p. 208 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=123804 retrieved 23/2/2013