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Finding and Using Images

SIA New York Library Guide


As soon as an intellectual work (on-screen an idea in fixed tangible form) is created it is protected by copyright. No need to request or register which makes it very easy.

When a work is created, there is a defined amount of time for the work to be protected by copyright. The current guidelines have been in existence since 1978 and there are a few variations on works published before that year. Check out the table for a brief outline of copyright guidelines. Take note that works created before 1923 are in the “public domain” which means they are free for anyone to use without copyright restrictions.

Related Links

Images in Scholarly Work & Theses

Digital Commons @ SIA

Coming in 2016:

Digital Commons @ SIA is a repository of the research, scholarship, and creative works of Sotheby's Institute of Art faculty, students, and staff. Administered by the SIA New York Library, the repository increases the global visibility of our campus community’s intellectual output and seeks to showcase and preserve our rich and unique history in the art world.

Digital Commons @ SIA is an open-access institutional repository, with freely accessible content that is searchable via Google Scholar and other search engines.



ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Database

SIA students have the option to include their thesis in the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Database. With more than 4 million entries, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT) is the most comprehensive collection of dissertations and theses in the world.  Having an electronic copy available online has far more benefits than just having a copy kept in the library. 

An online copy may widen your readership by being easy to locate and access.  You may also widen your visibility as a scholar by having your research available online.

SIA students will be asked to try and obtain copyright permissions for images, if necessary, used in a thesis they upload to the ProQuest Dissertations and Theses Database.

Do I need to obtain copyright permissions for images in my thesis?

The library encourages SIA students to try and obtain copyright permission for copyrighted images in the thesis as they are working on it. Maintaining records of all permissions secured will benefit you for the future use and publication of your work.

The library also encourages writers of image-heavy theses to get comfortable with fair use.

Common material under copyright can include images, graphs and lengthy quotations.

Your publishing agreement with ProQuest places responsibility for securing all copyright permission solely on the author.


Are the images in my thesis considered Fair Use?

If you are using images for criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research then you are more than likely falling under the fair use principle of copyright, and therefore they may be used without the need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder.

There are several factors to keep in mind to ensure  images, maps, or other illustrative material in your paper are used in a manner consistent with the doctrine of fair use.  

  • It is better to use images at a resolution adequate for your purposes, but not of such rich quality that they may encroach on any potential market for the original works 
  • Make sure that the images used are subject to a scholarly analysis, criticism or comment in your paper.  
  • Do not use more of the work than necessary.  
  • Attempt to gain permissions for any images you’ve used that are under copyright.  
  • Gaining permissions may prove difficult.  Retain all documentation related to your efforts. 

See the Fair Use section for more information. You can also use the Fair Use Checklist to determine if your images fall under Fair Use.

Get Copyright Permission

When you begin to obtain copyright permissions for your thesis, stay organized. Try using our checklist to keep track of your letters and permission forms. It is a good idea to start as soon as possible if you know you are including copyrighted images.

  1. Find out if the work is still under copyright protection. You can find this out by following the guidelines set out in the Copyright Office or Library of Congress ( Anything created prior to 1900 is probably not protected anymore.
  2. Determine who owns the copyright, which can usually be done by contacting the publisher. If you have difficulty identifying an owner, contact the Library for assistance.
  3. Request permission from the owner by using a permission request letter similar to the example below.
  4. Keep a copy of your correspondence for your records. Also, keep in mind permission is specific only to the uses you have requested. If you want to use previously permitted material in a new work, for example a textbook, you should contact the copyright owner for a new permission. 

Not Able To Get Permission?

Sometimes students are unable to obtain permission. Perhaps the copyright owner does not get back to you after writing them. For the purpose of images in your thesis there are some options. Make sure to keep all efforts of contact with the copyright owner for good-faith purposes.


Is it Fair Use?

See the Fair Use section below to check if your use of images falls under Fair Use. Such uses of images do not require special permissions.

Use Thumbnail Images

As an alternative to suppressing images that you were unable to obtain the copyright for, you may want to use a thumbnail image. A thumbnail image at 97px in height can be considered fair use, and may provide enough visual information to enhance your argument. Furthermore, it would be unlikely that anyone would use thumbnails for illustrative or aesthetic purposes as enlarging them sacrifices their clarity.

Use Public Domain Images

Perhaps the image you are trying to use is located in a recent publication under copyright. It may be that the image can be found in an older publication in the public domain. How old is the image? See the Public Domain section below for more information.

Fair Use

Fair use is a copyright principle that allows users of information to be able to use intellectual property while still enabling the creator to be able to own and profit from their work.  If you are using an intellectual work for any of these reasons then you are more than likely falling under the fair use principle of copyright.

These reasons include criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research.

What counts as “fair use” of something depends on these four main factors:

1) The Purpose and Character of Use: How have you used the work? Have you transformed the original work by adding new expression or meaning?

2) The Nature of the Copyrighted Work: Is the work factual in nature or creative? Is it unpublished or published? Different factors about the original work will have an effect on fair use.

3) The Amount and Substantiality of the Portion Used: How much of the original work are you quoting, summarizing or using? (Quoting three lines of a six line poem is different than quoting three line from a five-minute song). And, of the portion that you are using - how much of the “substantial” idea of the work are you using?

4) The Effect of the Use on the Original Work in the Market: Does the way you use the work deprive the copyright owner of income? Or does it undermine a new or potential market for the original work?


For more information on fair use check out Stanford University's guide to Fair Use.

Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in the Visual Arts

The College Art Association's Code of Best Practices for Fair Use in the Visual Arts addresses the following five questions:

  • Analytic Writing: When may scholars and other writers about art invoke fair use to quote, excerpt, or reproduce copyrighted works?
  • Teaching about Art: When may teachers invoke fair use in using copyrighted works to support formal instruction in a range of settings, including online and distance teaching?
  • Making Art: Under what circumstances may artists invoke fair use to incorporate copyrighted material into new artworks in any medium?
  • Museum Uses: When may museums and their staffs invoke fair use in using copyrighted works—including images and text as well as time-based and born-digital material—when organizing exhibitions, developing educational materials (within the museum and online), publishing catalogues, and other related activities?
  • Online Access to Archival and Special Collections: When may such institutions and their staffs invoke fair use to create digital preservation copies and/or enable digital access to copyrighted materials in their collections?

Frequently Asked Questions

Have questions about how the Code of Best Practices can be used to evaluate your use of copyrighted materials? Not sure if your use of copyrighted materials falls under the fair use doctrine? Check here for frequently asked questions.

Statement on the Fair Use of Images for Teaching, Research & Study

The Visual Resources Association with the assistance of a legal advisory committee recently released an opinion statement clearly stating (pages 11-12) that reproducing images in theses and dissertations is consistent with "fair use".


  • The VRA report has a list of five helpful suggestions for using images in theses and dissertations on page 12 of the report.

Public Domain

No permission is needed to use works in the public domain because they are not protected by copyright. Most works enter the public domain when the law no longer considers them under copyright. 

Some databases that include images in the public domain can be found under the Find Images tab.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons is a way for you to share your ideas and creative work with the rest of the world, while also making decisions about how you want your intellectual work to be credited to you.

Creative Commons License
All Library Guides by Sotheby's Institute of Art New York Library are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. 3rd-party content including, but not limited to images and linked items, are subject to their own license terms.