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For a paper we're writing, we need to use a small image of a popular, easily recognized piece of consumer electronics.

In previous drafts of the paper, a long time ago, someone made an image for the paper that ended up being the "headliner" image, i.e., the largest image that explains and outlines the subject of the whole paper. In it, because it was such an early draft and he was just trying to get the concept down, he clearly just googled the name of the piece of electronics and grabbed a random image he liked, cropped it, and put it in the larger image.

Now we're at the stage where we're actually going to submit the paper, but of course now part of our "headline" image is a random picture that we don't own, so I'm in a bit of an awkward position. Hopefully I can at least get the original composite image from the one who made our "headline" image (the image in the paper is flat so it can't just be "ungrouped" so I can remove/replace the offending part), but even then I don't know how to proceed.

So my question is, how can one use images in this way in a professional paper? Are you allowed to use anything on the internet as long as you credit it clearly? And if so, is there some way you're supposed to credit just a random URL?

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This is a really good example of why it's important to be careful about copyright from the beginning: there's really no good way to ensure that you can actually secure permissions to use a random image. In terms of scientific ethics, you can credit the source, but that is completely unrelated to the fact that you may have no legal right to use the image.

As I see it, there are three good paths to proceed:

  1. Track down the source of the original image (e.g., via reverse image search) and see if it happens to come from somewhere that you can acquire a copyright from.
  2. Search for a similar image that is less restricted by copyright (Wikipedia is often a good source of such, due to their restrictions).
  3. Make your own image. Since you're dealing with a popular piece of consumer electronics, you might even just lay hands on one and take a picture yourself, then enhance and crop as necessary with image editing tools (there's lots of good free tools out there).
  • Thank you for the response. So if I can find a free image, like from wikipedia, is there a common way to cite it? For some reason just saying "image from www.wikipedia.com/etcblahblah" seems awkward and wrong. – YungHummmma Jul 20 '15 at 20:02
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    Wikipedia has a nice article on how to cite material found there: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Citing_Wikipedia – jakebeal Jul 20 '15 at 20:27
  • While it is somewhat grey area and a bit risky (but IMHO not too much in this context), the OP might consider using a copyrighted image (with proper credit, of course), based on the legal doctrine of fair use, if it is applicable in the OP's country of origin as well as the country of publication. – Aleksandr Blekh Jul 21 '15 at 0:15
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    Depending on the jurisdiction, the photo variant of suggestion 3 could even be somewhat risky, as the photograph might depict printed or sculpted design elements that are a part of the device and that are themselves subject to copyright. (I mean, if depicting ancient artifacts can open up copyright-based legal battles, I can imagine some companies to be picky about depictions of their products.) – O. R. Mapper Jul 21 '15 at 7:42
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Scientific publishing is just a specialized part of publishing. So all the rules on intangible assets apply just as much as in non-scientific editions.

Submitting a paper involves a scientific undertaking: you are making a representation that all scientific ideas contained in the paper are either yours, or have been duly referenced. But it also involves a legal representation, i.e. that you have the right to publish or to have published all content you present. This is why most journals make you subscribe a legal document in this sense.

The easiest solution, in my sense, is to make your own image. That way, there is no possible contest as to who owns the legal rights to the same. It may mean using a photo that is not quite as good from the point of view of clarity, or for scientific quality. But in the end of the day, what is most important is the innovative thinking contained in your paper, not just the support used to convey this thinking.

Do consider this hiccup as good training for that day, later on, when you will be involved in writing a publication in book form. On that day, you will be happy to have this experience to keep you aware of what can be used from a legal point of view, and what not. Asset management is, perhaps unfortunately, also a part of science.

  • Hi, thanks for the response. There's one tricky part that prevents me from making my own image (i.e., taking a picture of the object as suggested by someone else as well): without getting too specific, it's a special, fairly rare version of something pretty common, so I don't know where I'd be able to get one in person. Thank you though. – YungHummmma Jul 20 '15 at 20:48
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    @YungHummmma What has worked for me in the past is to find a suitable image, then contact the author directly. Basically, I asked him pretty please if I could use his image for this and that purpose. He was happy to provide such permission, so I was covered from the legal standpoint. This works mostly with non-professional photographers, who can then say "My images have been published in this Journal" - a bit of a win-win situation. The important part is that there was explicit acceptance by the original author of the photo. Hope this helps. – ALAN WARD Jul 20 '15 at 20:56

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