Now What?: Copyright and Online Photos

Now What?: Copyright and Online Photos

Is it OK to use photos you find online? We'll help clear up the confusion and keep you legal.

Q. I found an image of my ancestors’ hometown online. I know it was taken before 1923, so does that mean I can use it on my family website or in an album?

A. According to US copyright law, works published before Jan. 1, 1923, are in the public domain, meaning anyone can use, adapt or copy them freely. See our quick guide to what copyright covers and download the US Copyright Office guide “How to Investigate the Copyright Status of a Work” as a PDF.

But copyright and physical ownership are separate issues. “Even if the item is in the public domain, it’s a one-of-a-kind historical item, so physical ownership entitles the repository to charge a user’s fee. The same goes for historical photos in online databases,” Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Carmack’s Guide to Copyright and Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers and Researchers, writes in the December 2004 Family Tree Magazine.

If a library or archive owns the actual image, you’ll need its permission—and you may have to pay a licensing fee, depending on how you want to use the image. Examine the website where you found the photo to try to determine where it came from. You also could try e-mailing the webmaster.
Keep in mind that photos in online collections, such as the Library of Congress’ American Memory collection, may not all be owned by the same library. Photos in the American Memory collection link to bibliographic pages (like this one) where you can find the name of the repository that owns an image.

Once you find out which repository owns the physical image, call or check its website for information on rights and reproductions. Often, there’s a permission form you can fill out stating your planned use of the image.

Some repositories let individual researchers use images fee-free for personal or academic projects—meaning you probably could copy the image for your genealogy files or an album, or use it in a class for your genealogical society. Usually, you’ll have to pay a fee if you want to publish the image on a public website or in a book.

For your family website, Carmack suggests, it may be easiest to link to the digital image on the repository’s website rather than include the actual image on your site.


To learn more about how to tackle tough research questions, see Family Tree Magazine‘s book 101 Brick Wall Busters: Solutions to Overcome Your Genealogical Challenges, the Family Tree Magazine webinar recording Brick Wall Strategies: Advice and Ideas for Getting Past Research Dead Ends, and the Family Tree Problem Solver, all available on Family Tree Shop.

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