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What Types of Clipart Can You Use When Publishing Your Book?

written by: Dana A. Hinders•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 10/27/2011

Clipart can provide a great source of affordable illustrations for your self published book, but only if all applicable copyright laws are followed. Learn how to protect yourself from costly legal battles by determining the appropriate use of clipart in your desktop publishing projects.

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    Understanding Clipart Copyright Laws

    Clipart provides a convenient way to obtain illustrations on a variety of topics, but it's important to realize that these images have copyright restrictions just like any other creative work. If you'd like to use clipart when publishing your book, you need to take the time to make sure you're following all applicable copyright laws. Failure to do so could result in a costly legal battle between you and the image copyright holder.

    Clipart, whether obtained from a website or a CD of images, is not yours to use however you please. When you purchase the images, the creator of the clipart is giving you permission to use them in a limited fashion. If you are interested in using clipart to illustrate your book, you will want to obtain a copy of your clipart package's end user license agreement. This is a legal document describing the permitted use of the images.

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    Royalty Free Clipart

    Little Miss Muffet 1940 poster clip art Most clipart images come with a royalty free license. This allows the customer to use the image for personal, educational, or non-profit applications. It does not allow for commercial use of the image unless this is specifically stated in the agreement.

    Many first time authors wonder about the difference between educational and commercial use. Commercial use means that you are selling your book for money. Even if your book is an instructional guide that educates the reader about a topic, it is still considered a commercial project if you are selling your book to make a profit.

    Example: An example of appropriate educational use would be a teacher who is using clip art to illustrate worksheets she is handing out to her students.

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    Rights Managed Images

    Rights managed images are the most common form of clipart used for illustrating books and other products that will be sold for a profit. Rights managed images are purchased by the user for a one-time use. If the buyer wants to use the image a second time, an additional license needs to be purchased.

    Rights managed images can be either exclusive to one buyer or sold to multiple buyers. As you might expect, exclusive images are significantly more expensive.

    Example: Getty Images, one of the Web's leading providers of photos and clipart, sells both royalty free and rights managed images. Since rights managed pricing is based on how you want to use the image, you must first complete an online questionnaire to learn how much it will cost to include a particular piece of clip art in your book.

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    Public Domain Images

    In the United States, images created before 1923 are considered in the public domain and thus able to be used for commercial purposes without paying fees to the original copyright holder. Images created after 1923 are not in the public domain unless permission has been specifically granted by the artist or it was published by the federal government.

    Example: A picture of the Statue of Liberty published in 1915 in the United States would be in the public domain. If the photo was published in 1935, however, it would not be in the public domain unless permission was specifically granted by the artist or the photo was taken by someone working for the federal government.

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    Creative Commons Licenses

    Book and light clip art  The Creative Commons license is becoming increasingly popular for clipart that is distributed online. Many people think a Creative Commons license equates to permission to use clipart in an unlimited fashion, but this is not the case. There are actually six different types of licenses that fall under the Creative Commons umbrella and only three of them allow for commercial use of images: Attribution: CC BY, Attribution-ShareAlike: CC BY-SA, and Attribution-NoDerivs: CC BY-ND.

    Example: Flickr, a popular source of images that use the Creative Commons license, allows to you search for images according to the type of license that is being offered.

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    A Word about Free Clipart

    There are a number of websites offering galleries of free clipart images, but these are almost never appropriate to illustrate a book you plan to sell. Free clipart websites typically restrict the use of their images for personal projects only. In addition, many of the larger galleries of clipart contain images that were not properly added to the database. Therefore, even if the site claims you can use the graphics for commercial purposes, the actual copyright holder could dispute your image use in court.

    Example: If you use an image from someone's personal blog in your book with their permission, you could still be held liable for damages if the blogger doesn't actually own the copyright for the image.

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    Clipart Licensing Restrictions

    Laptop clip art Even if a clipart image is approved for commercial use, there may still be restrictions regarding how you can incorporate the image into your book.

    One common restriction for clipart used in desktop publishing projects is a clause prohibiting you from using images to imply endorsement or association with a specific service or activity. This applies to representations of identifiable individuals, as well as clipart images of logos, emblems, or trademarks.

    Many clipart licensing agreements have clauses preventing you from using images for projects that could be classified as inappropriate. If your book deals with sex, drugs, violence, or other highly controversial topics, this could be an important consideration. In addition, if your book deals with a topic that could be considered defamatory, such as an unauthorized biography of a famous person, you may not be allowed to use certain clipart images as part of your illustrations.

    Example: You wouldn't be able to use a clipart drawing of President Obama to imply that he has given personal approval to your book.

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    Finding Original Images

    If you have any doubt as to whether or not a clipart image can be legally used in your book, it's best to obtain graphics from another source. You can hire a freelance illustrator to create an image by advertising on a website such as Elance. If you live near a college or university with a strong art program, you could also try contacting a professor in the department to ask for the names of talented students who might be willing to take on your project to help build their portfolios.