I recently came across a journal article that included and referenced a figure (photograph) from a US patent. I found the patent, and I would like to use the same figure, and I'm wondering who the copyright holder is. Might it be free to use since the patent itself is public, or do I need to ask around until I find the copyright holder?


2 Answers 2


It depends on how the figure is being used. If it is for non-commercial purposes -- e.g., in a scientific journal to support a study -- then it will likely fall under the 'fair use' provision. If it is for commercial purposes, such as a book that you are seeking to publish, then it is likely considered commercial purposes, and you will need to work out the permissions.


  • Sorry Brian, I forgot about your answer until recently. This is what we ended up doing in the end. The paper has been published, and so far, no accusations of copyright infringement :) Feb 11, 2015 at 21:43
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    That memo is inapplicable to this question, since it's about non-patent literature. Patents fall under different rules -- they're assumed to be public domain unless the holder claims otherwise.
    – cpast
    Apr 27, 2015 at 22:53

I have always felt that directly re-using (i.e., copying) anyone's figures in any work, including student papers, is dubious practice even if cited. If students re-draft figures and cite them properly, this seems just about acceptable for undergraduate work. For almost any other purpose, however, I think substantial modification of the figure is necessary.

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    How can a screenshot of an existing tool that constitutes the previous state of the art, that the new work is based upon, or needs to be contrasted with, be "substantially modified" - especially in fields where reviewers do complain if they just see a mock-up rather than a screenshot of an actual software? I'm not saying directly copying someone's figures is definitely the way to go, but in fields where figures are not so much used for showing information about the results, but rather they are the results, re-drafting figures is not always practical. Feb 10, 2015 at 21:23
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    @O.R.Mapper is right. In my case we would have had to buy some expensive material that we would not otherwise need, just to photograph it up close and compare with a computer generated model. Feb 11, 2015 at 21:37
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    Screenshots are good practice to document one's work, of course. Copying someone else's screenshots are not.
    – mfs
    Apr 4, 2015 at 13:00

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