Copyrights, Digital Files, and Your Slideshows

Some of the most frequently asked questions the Photo to Movie team receives are related to using copyrighted images and music in slideshows. Can one use them under any circumstances? If I find a photo of the Eiffel Tower through a Google search and place it in a slideshow, am I required to check the copyright? If I create a slideshow for my mother or husband and want to use a Michael Bolton song, will I get a phone call from his lawyers? These are all excellent questions, although the matter is so complex that determining what can be used and what can't is often a difficult task.

There is one easy answer. Any photos, music, or movies that you create, personally, are your own intellectual property, and you are free to use them however you'd like. But what if your slideshow feels incomplete without an online photo of the Empire State Building, for example, or an mp3 of a John Mayer hit? The internet has made it possible for us to find images and songs like these at the click of a mouse, but despite their widespread accessibility these works are still copyrighted. It's important to remember how we can use someone else's intellectual property without overstepping the boundaries of infringement. This article will explain a few of the basics.


First of all, we have the matter of copyrighted images. Most photos and digital artworks are copyrighted and cannot be used without consent of the copyright holder (which is, in most cases, the creator of the image, although photos you find in magazines are often owned by the publishers).

There are some images, however, that are considered public domain -- in other words, not owned by anybody. Works that are in the public domain can be used for ANY purpose by any individual. Most public domain photos are either released as such by the original creator, or fall into the public domain over time. United States Copyright Law says that a copyright only lasts for 70 years beyond the death of the "author."

A few examples. A digital photograph depicting a painting by Rembrandt is most likely public domain: the painting itself is far too old to be protected by a copyright, and unless the photo alters the painting's appearance in some significant way, it too is public domain. Likewise, a photograph of downtown New York City in the late 1800's is also probably in the public domain, since the photographer has no doubt been deceased for over 70 years. It is, however a good idea to research the background of every photo before using it in a slideshow as there are numerous exceptions to these rules.

When seeking images online, note that there are several different types of licenses, some stricter than others. For example, some copyright holders allow anybody to use their images in a non-commercial setting (so you can't put the image on anything that will be sold). Others allow use of their images as long as the original author is attributed. GNU licenses, often seen on internet photos, are slightly more complex, having their roots in software distribution. Anybody can copy, modify, and use these photos but the resulting works must be released under the same GNU license as the original photo (confused yet?). The derivative works (ie, the slideshow you create with the photo) also cannot be distributed to more than 100 individuals commercially unless the original photo is provided as well.

There are several excellent resources for learning more about photo licenses and also downloading public domain images of a wide range of subjects for use in your slideshows. Try the following websites:

Wikipedia's article about the Creative Commons, a popular online image, music, and text database:

Wikimedia Commons, where one can search through thousands of images (some public domain):


The copyright rules pertaining to music are far more rigid, and perhaps no other medium's copyrights have been as infringed upon or as hotly debated since file-sharing on the internet began. There is a basic rule of thumb with musical recordings: they are ALL copyrighted. There are very, very few public domain, royalty-free pieces of music. Some, however, can be found in the Creative Commons or on the Musopen website (see below). Chances are that none of your favorite songs -- by artists like the Beatles or Rolling Stones or Kenny G -- are there. This means you cannot copy, alter or distribute any of these songs without contacting the copyright holders and obtaining permission, and/or purchasing limited rights.

One interesting point is that there are two different copyrights to every piece of recorded music. First, the music and lyrics to the song being performed are copyrighted -- and owned by the composer and/or lyricist. Second is the performance itself: the individual(s) playing the music have their own copyright. So if you were to use John Coltrane's immortal version of "My Favorite Things," you would not only need to obtain permission from the saxophonist's estate but also from Rodgers and Hammerstein's.

Obviously any music that you write and perform yourself can be freely used. But what if you perform someone else's song? This is usually legal (unless you are a profession musician), however, you cannot distribute your performance of the song commercially without first obtaining the appropriate clearances.

Fair Use

So, what if you absolutely have to use a copyrighted photo or song in your slideshow? Will the lawyers come knocking at your door if you create a birthday video for your wife using Fleetwood Mac's "You Make Loving Fun"? Part of staying on the safe side of these issues is to assume that all material is copyrighted unless you know otherwise. Since committing this crime is punishable by imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000, it's a good skill to learn.

The term "fair use" -- the conditions under which copyrighted material can be used without permission -- has been heavily scrutinized in the last few years, although a few examples of it are still legally protected. There are many concessions for educational institutions, where students and teachers often use copyrighted music, photos, films, and books. It is also considered "fair use" for an individual to incorporate a copyrighted work into a parody -- in other words, using an artist's work in order to comically comment on it. A Saturday Night Live skit that uses a 10 second clip from a film might be an example of this (although most network television channels do obtain the proper clearances for such things).

So what constitutes "fair use"? With photos, observing them in the privacy of your home is considered "fair use." With music, listening to the recording at home, in the car, or from your iPod is also considered "fair use."

This doesn't mean that you should leave out a copyrighted image or song from a slideshow. If it fits, include it. But if you do, it will limit the number of people and places where you can show your slideshow.

There is often a fine line between "fair use" and infringement, and where the line is drawn often depends on your audience. Are you creating a slideshow for the public, or for you and your family? For example, if you upload a slideshow to YouTube with a copyrighted song, it's an infringement and will most likely be deleted. But you could email this same slideshow to a select number of family members and friends for their own personal and private enjoyment. While it's good to exercise caution even with situations such as these, they are ordinarily deemed acceptable.

Hopefully we've given you some tips on how to create the perfect slideshow while remaining within the boundaries of US Copyright Laws. Our international readers should definitely visit the home pages of their respective country's copyright offices, as the rules are very different all over the world. If you're curious to learn more about the fun subject of US copyright, here are a few web pages that helped us write this article:

Written by Joseph Jon Lanthier, LQ Graphics, Inc.

June 11, 2008 - First version