I am preparing a research seminar talk in an academic discipline which I'll give online (with Beamer) at University X.

I like to show images of the people whose ideas have gone into my work. Most of the time I can get images which have been clearly released under some form of Creative Commons License, allowing me to use it provided I attribute the copyright holder. However this is not always possible, and sometimes the only photo I can find of Person Y is on their personal homepage at University Z, where there is no mention of copyright on the image, or whether it may be used by others.

Is one allowed to use the photos found on the personal webpages of people working at academic institutions for non-commercial purposes such as in the slides of a research seminar talk, if there is no explicit mention of copyright or limitations on its use by others?

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    To avoid dilemmata,I always use attributable images with a permissive copyright and citation to avoid difficulties. If your seminar is non-public, you might use other pictures as per "fair use", unfortunately, today you will never know who will film you or tweet an image of your slides publicly on the web for everybody to see. I guess whether this is acceptable is still legally uncharted territory. Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 14:39
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    Contact those people by email Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 8:26

2 Answers 2


To avoid all questions, and in the absence of a clear license, ask the person for permission to use a picture. They might even have a better one that they would prefer be used.

For a deceased person, ask the university, either through their former department head or a university publicity office. If they can't grant you a right to use it, they can possibly put you in contact with someone who holds the rights, such as their estate, for example.

I don't guess anyone would turn you down, and this is simple enough to do.

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    Only last year I wrote to a very famous person in my field asking whether I could use his photograph from a public web page in a textbook I'm working on. I sent a sample page showing how it would be used. Almost instantly I got back a very nice email and a much better photograph.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 15:21
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    It's quite possible the person who needs to give permission is neither Y nor Z. Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 8:25
  • @AnonymousPhysicist Yes. In the United States, there's this "right of publicity" which (usually) does belong to Y. Then there's the copyright on the photo itself, which often belongs to the photographer. In most cases, Y can give consent that would keep OP out of trouble, though.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 15:18

In the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, copyright exists as soon as a "creative work" is "fixed in a tangible medium." So, in the United States every modern photograph is covered by copyright. The Creative Commons license is just that, a license to use the work. If there's no mention of a license, then the assumption should be that use is not allowed without prior approval.

Copyright law in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere, includes the doctrine of fair use, which in some cases permits unlicensed use of material under copyright. The trouble with that is, fair use claims are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, so one could be sued and even prevail, but have to bear the cost of defending the suit. The U.S. Copyright Office has a lot more information on fair use.

Your best course, as Buffy has already written, is to contact the person whose image you want to use, and ask.

I guess I should add that images of people who are deceased are a different and messier can of worms. The decedent's estate likely owns the image. Images of, e.g. a famous actor, might be owned by a corporation. I haven't worried about images of people who died before 1920 because there were major changes in U.S. copyright laws that made 1920 an important date, but this isn't legal advice, and I could possibly come to regret not worrying.

  • Thanks for your answer. The comments about country-specific copyright laws are interesting especially in a post-Covid world where many seminars have moved online, with speaker, audience and "venue" distributed across the globe, making jurisdiction very hard to pin-down. Regarding older content, my understanding was that copyrights generally only last for the life of the creator plus 70 years, after which it enters the public domain, so I'd have thought images of people who died before 1920 would be fine. (Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer!) Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 17:53
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    @BarinderBanwait Do note that the creator of a photograph is the photographer, not the subject. Under the life plus 70 rule, it is entirely possible that a photograph taken before1920 would still be covered by a valid copyright. It was a change to the copyright law that made important. The change itself was made in 1976; my original post was incorrect in that respect.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 8:02
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    What you say about copyright in the first sentence is true (almost) everywhere, thanks to the Berne Convention, which the vast majority of countries are signatories to. However, I do not think that a doctrine of "fair use" is necessarily accepted internationally, although it is likely pretty universally accepted in the academic world (presuming proper citations, of course). Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 11:40

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