Intellectual Property Guide for Visual Resources


Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker, 1769 - 1770. Oil on canvas.
Musée du Louvre. Wikimedia Commons.

A Virtual Enlightenment:
Guide for Intellectual Property and
Visual Resources




Meredith Wisner
Art & Architecture Librarian

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Best Practices | Finding Visual Resources | Managing Images 
Citing Resources |Getting PermissionFurther Reading


This guide will help you ethically use visual resources; specifically those created by cultural institutions (museums, galleries, archives and libraries). Although we might be familiar with copyright when working with text-based materials, visual resources offer their own challenges.

For general information on intellectual property consult the Library's Intellectual Property guide, which covers copyright, fair use, permissions and citations. The content of this guide is not intended to provide legal advice. 

The short video below provides a great overview to these issues as well.

Video: Elsa LoftisCopyright and Fair Use, from

Best Practices for Using Visual Resources (from College Art Association)

Principles for Analytic Writing:

"In their analytic writing about art, scholars and other writers (and, by extension, their publishers) may invoke fair use to quote, excerpt, or reproduce copyrighted works, subject to certain limitations:" 

  • Use only those images, or portions of images, that illustrate your point
  • The use of the image should be secondary to the point it intends to illustrate
  • The size and resolution of the image should be only as large as is required to illustrate your point
  • Extra consideration should be taken when using reproductions of born-digital works in a online environment
  • One should strive toward the most accurate representations of the original work
  • One should provide attribution of the original work, and the location where the reproduction was acquired

Finding Visual Resources


The best place to find an images of a particular work of art is the institution that owns or cares for that work. Cultural institutions, like galleries, libraries, archives, and museums offer the most accurate citation information, including who owns the rights to the original and its reproductions. In addition, trusted aggrigators like Artstor can offer high resolution public domain images with reliable citation information.

Video: Elsa Loftis, "Visual Resources" from

Great sites for finding public domain or images that are free for scholarly use:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers license- and cost-free access to high-quality images of works of art in the public domain,  for both scholarly and commercial use through its 2017 Open Access intiative.  These images are downloadable in high resolution from the museum's website, and are labeled "Public Domain" in their Collections database. The Metropolitan Museum's Open Access policy offers more information about the program.

Screen shot of Metropolitan Museum of Art's website showing public domain icon.

  • Artstor brings together hundreds of thousands of high-quality fine art images that have been provided by museums and libraries across the globe. Through Artstor's Images for Academic Publishing (IAP) intiative, you can obtain publication quality images free for scholarly use. Simply put "IAP" in the search box along with your other search terms to find public domain images that are cleared for scholarly use.

  • The J. Paul Getty Museum makes public domain images in its collection available through their Open Content Program. No permission is required. You can search only the Open Content images by selecting "Open Content Images" in the "Highlights" section in the left sidebar. Select the image's title and click "download." View their Open Content Program page for more information.
  • The National Gallery of Art has a lage selection of public domain images offered through their Open Access program.  For more information see their Open Access policy page.

Managing Your Resources

It is a good idea to develop an resource management strategy to keep track of all your research materials and where you found them.

A citation management software like Zotero can help you organize your book citations, articles, visual resources, webpages, and video all in one place. It can also format bibliographies automatically (it's pretty amazing). 

Check out the Barnard Zotero Guide for more information about Zotero and how to download the Zotero for Firefox plugin.

Citing Visual Resources

It is important to remember that web publishing is similar to print publishing, and you are required to provide accurate bibliographic citation information for all the sources you use in your work - including images.  

When citing visual resources you will need the following information:

  • Artist of the original work
  • Title of the work
  • Date the work was created
  • Medium
  • Location of the original work
  • Location where you found the reproduction (this can be a book, online museum collection, or third party database)
  • Publishing information (if a website, the URL where the image was found)

Two excellent resouces for helping you format your citations are Purdue Online Writing Lab and Trinity College's CiteSource. Both of these resouces offer citation style information for a wide variety of resouce types.

Please Note: The citation style required for this class is Chicago 16th edition.

Video: Elsa Loftis, Information Literacy: "How to Cite" from
Video: Elsa Loftis, Information Literacy: "Citation for Visual Resources and Media" from

Captions in Chicago Citation Style:

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1769 - 70. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Getting Permission

If you wish to use material that is not in the public domain, or you have determined that your use of a work is not covered by fair use, you will need to secure permission from the rights holder. A rights holder could be an individual author or artist, a corporation, or a cultural institution like a museum, gallery, archive or library. The following are good steps to take when trying to secure permission:

  • Identify the copyright holder. If you have found material on the open web it is often difficult to identify the true copyright holder. Likewise, sites like Flickr or Google Image Search, which bring together images from a variety of sources, may not provide true or up-to-date information about who holds the copyright of a particular image. It is best to seek out images from reputable image databases like Artstor or Alexander Street Press, or get them directly from the person or institution that holds the copyright.
  • Read their “terms of use” page. Institutions often post their “terms of use” or “rights and reproductions” information on their website to give users an understanding of the their requirements when applying for permission to use their copyrighted material.
  • Write an Permissions and Licensing Request Letter. A good letter will include details about exactly what you intend to use and how it will be conveyed. Include:
    • Who you are and your affiliation (in this case, Barnard College)
    • What work specifically you intend to use.
    • How you intend to use the work. For commercial purposes or academic? The entire work, or only a portion? How will the work will be distributed?
    • When will the work be used? For how long?
    • Why: Explain why you are contacting the person in question so they know that you believe them to be the rights holder.
  • Keep a Record. Whether your permissions request is approved, ignored, or denied, it is important to keep a record of your requests and the rights holder's responses. If the request is approved you may need to refer back to their response to determine if a potential new use is covered by the existing agreement.  Factors that limit use could be the duration of the use, format, size of the audience, as well for the preferred citation when crediting the rights holder.

Works cited for this section:

Columbia University, Copyright Advisory Office, Permissions & Licensing

Further Reading

Aufderheide, Patricia and Peter Jaszi. Code of Best Practives in Fair Use for the Visual Arts. New York: College Art Association. 2015.

Bielstein, Susan M. Permissions, a Survival Guide: Blunt Talk about Art as Intellectual PropertyChicago: Chicago University Press. 2006.


Last updated 08/07/2017

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