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Clip Art - When It's Illegal

It's a dilemma that small business owners face daily. Where do you find quality clip art images licensed for business use? How can you tell if an image is legal to use in a given situation? Which laws apply to which clip art images?

First, a definition of clip art is in order. The words "clip art" can classify a wide variety of files—professional photographs, technical illustrations, simple line drawings, even fonts. However, some define clip art only as scalable vector illustrations. Others may define clip art as any image used on a computer.

The definition of clip art is flexible, but US copyright laws apply to all image types equally—the right of legal use depends on the intent of the copyright owner.

Professional graphic designers must draw the line between clip art that's legit and clip art that can cause legal troubles. Below are the common legal categories and definitions for clip art images that graphic designers use every day.

Free Clip Art

There are plenty of free clip art websites online. Most offer hundreds of basic images

inlow-resolution formats. (For more on clip art resolution formats, read Understanding Image Formats.) Free images are fine for personal use—such as scrapbooking-but unless you know the original source and the website owner's motive for giving clip art away free, you risk downloading unlabeled, copyrighted images inadvertently. (You may also leave your computer vulnerable to uninvited guests, like spyware.)

Legal business use for free clip art images isn't easy to pinpoint since the original source is obscure, so free clip art images aren't recommended for business use.

Published Clip Art

Published clip art categorizes every image you see online or in print. Sometimes it's difficult to find the source of these images, but if you want to use the image commercially, you must receive permission.

Contact the webmaster or publisher to learn the source of a given clip art image, then do your homework to find out if it's available for commercial use. If you can't track the image to its source, look elsewhere for clip art images with clear origins.

Some copyrighted clip art is not open to any public use. For example, you'd be hard pressed to get a legal image of Disney's Mickey Mouse for display on your commercial website unless you are a licensed reseller of Disney products. Legally, you can't even copy an image of a Disney character to make your own personal T-shirt.

Copyrighted, restricted clip art is off-limits for commercial use unless you have a written agreement with the copyright holder.

Royalty-Free Clip Art and Stock Images

The term "Stock Images" refers to full-page illustrations, typically with full-color backgrounds, or to photographs. Some see stock images as more category-specific and more expensive than clip art packages. The Internet is a popular source for royalty-free stock images; many websites act as trading posts for artists, photographers and designers. Photographers can post images for sale and designers can purchase the right to use images for a small fee, sometimes as little as $1 each.

"Royalty-Free Clip Art" is usually more object-oriented, often without backgrounds. Although there isn't a clear dividing line between clip art and stock images, legal use for both image types is the same.

You may purchase royalty-free clip art and stock images on discs (or download) to use without restriction, commercially and privately—on business cards, websites, personal scrapbooks and projects. The only purpose you cannot use royalty-free images for is to start your own clip art business; you do not have the right to resell or lease the clip art to others.

Rights Protected or Rights Managed Clip Art

Occasionally a business may want a unique clip art image that no one else has used or seen. To purchase a "rights protected" image means you buy the right to use an image exclusively, for a specific purpose. The seller promises not to sell that image to anyone else for that purpose, so your rights to the image are "protected."

Of course, these images are far more expensive than royalty-free clip art—often costing thousands of US dollars for a single image. The price also varies depending on how, where, when and for what duration you plan to use the image. Deviating from your approved use plan would be a legal violation.

Editorial Use Clip Art

Editorial rights images are typically photos for news, sports, entertainment, and other public interest arenas. These images can be used editorially (and some can be used commercially) as rights protected images. Of course, publishing images for editorial use is less restrictive and less expensive than rights protected use.

You must receive permission from the copyright owner for the specific use you have planned. The cost for using the image will be based on where, when, how long and in what form you plan to publish the image, and for what purpose.

For Happy Endings.

Before using clip art, make sure the image matches the use you have planned. Read the license agreement and examine all legal limitations before you publish the image, not after.