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I can't seem to find a canonical reference about Stack Exchange's policy regarding inclusion of images from the Internet in questions and answers. I'm not even sure whether this comes under copyright or plagiarism.

There are questions about copyright violations of text in answers, and questions about copyright images and Imgur but I can't find one specifically on this subject.

  • Is there a difference between including an image by a link, including an image via the Imgur interface? (vs. just linking to an image without it displaying inline)
  • Isn't it true that we only allow use of public domain and CC-BY-SA images or otherwise posters must obtain consent from the image's owner?
  • If moderators or just other editors on an SE site find images that seem to be just grabbed randomly from the Internet without regard to plagiarism or copyright, and without apparent permission of the owner, what should they do? Or what should they not do?
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  • How do you identify that an image is copyrighted in the first place? – Liam Oct 9 '14 at 8:24
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    @Liam: Sometimes it's hard to tell, but sometimes you can follow the link in the post, see that it's a photo from somebody's blog, and see a copyright notice on the blog. There are many other ways requiring a varying amount of effort. – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 8:29
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    There's also identifying what would be fair use and what wouldn't be. If you post a photo of something and say "this product is ace buy it here", that could be fair use, if you post a photo and say "don't buy this from here" that likely isn't. It's a minefield...Also that varies per country – Liam Oct 9 '14 at 8:30
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    Does SE do "fair use", and if so what's their interpretation of it? It must be a bit tricky because I know Wikipedia does not do fair use. This info would be relevant to include in the answer, or a co-question. In any case if you re-post somebody else's photo of something, no matter what you say along with it was what I was mainly asking about. For the per-country part would we go by US rules since SE is a US company hosted in the US? This is why a canonical answer would be valuable. – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 8:38
  • Yep agree, playing devils advocate! :) – Liam Oct 9 '14 at 8:42
  • Well if I'm reading this answer correctly. SE's policy is, it's not the mod's responsibility. Thoughts? – Liam Oct 9 '14 at 8:56
  • @Liam: But if I'm reading that correctly it's not necessarily SE's policy at all, since it specifically begins: IANAL, and I'm not affiliated with Stack Exchange (so, basically, I'm "some loud-mouthed guy on the Web") ... – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 10:27
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    Yes @hippietrail, valid point, but his argument still stands, i.e. the T&Cs state Subscriber (...) agrees that it will not contribute any Subscriber Content that (a) infringes, violates or otherwise interferes with any copyright or trademark of another party...etc. It would be nice for someone from SE to contribute to that though? – Liam Oct 9 '14 at 11:15
  • Yes the legalese is a little ... legasistic for us mortals ... it gives the impression to me at least that there's some wiggle-room for SE to have an actual policy about what is expected of OPs and of other editors and mods that might happen to notice that something is under copyright. – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 11:24
  • There's an old blog post by Joel that I'd probably seen on the subject of copyright and attribution, but it's actually on using stuff from SE elsewhere and not about using stuff from elsewhere on SE: blog.stackoverflow.com/2009/06/attribution-required – hippietrail Oct 13 '14 at 5:37
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Copyright applies to images in the same way as to text. Whoever made the image retains ownership and chooses who is allowed to use the image and under what conditions. Photographs of human-made objects may be subject to additional constraints as they involve both the intellectual property of the designer of the object and that of the photographer; photographs of humans are also subject to additional constraints as they involve the subject's self-image rights.

Users are responsible for ensuring that they have the right to post the content that they contribute to Stack Exchange terms of service §3. Complaints of copyright violation must be sent to Stack Exchange's designated agent by the copyright holder or their designated agent — third parties are not competent to judge whether an image has been used by permission.

As a user, you may want to inform posters who reuse someone else's image that they may be in violation of copyright. Moderators will not handle copyright infringement complaints. This is outside their attributions. (If moderators handled copyright infringement complaints, that could make them legally responsible for any mistake that they make.)

Including an image inline is fundamentally different from linking. Linking is not regulated (however, linking to an image someone else's server while implying that the image is your own would be a copyright violation).


Plagiarism is a whole different matter from copyright. If someone posts an image without mentioning who the author of the image is, this is plagiarism. (It is also usually a copyright violation, but again this is not a point to pursue as a third party.) Plagiarism is forbidden on Stack Exchange.

If you notice plagiarism (of images or any other form of content), please do intervene. See What to do when plagiarism is discovered. In summary, if you can find the original author, edit the post to add an attribution. Sometimes the image wasn't improving the post by much; use your own judgement to decide whether to leave it in with attribution, link to the source instead, or remove it altogether. Leave a comment under the post linking to the help page “How to reference material written by others”. If the plagiarist rolls back an edit adding a required attribution, or in case of repeat or chronic offenders, flag for a moderator's attention and explain the situation. Moderators will delete posts and sanction users as appropriate.

My standard plagiarism comment is

[Plagiarism](/help/referencing) is [not cool](https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/134715).
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    This. If it's simply making use of an image that might or might not be copyrighted - the copyright holder can let us know if they find cause for concern - we have channels for that. If it's presenting something that isn't their own creation in the context of 'I made this' - then it's time to flag, because that's plagiarism. – Tim Post Oct 9 '14 at 15:36
  • OK I'll rename my question to specifically cover plagiarism as well. Thanks. – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 17:57
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    If we use your standard plagiarism comment to notify someone how uncool plagiarism is, is that plagiarism or copyright violation? – ADTC Oct 10 '14 at 1:44
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    @ADTC I don't think there's enough there to count as a creative work, but just in case, I hereby grant anyone the authorization to use my “standard plagiarism comment” as described in this answer, or a modified form thereof, without any attribution. – Gilles Oct 10 '14 at 7:48
  • "Plagiarism is a whole different matter from copyright" - why? Using someone elses content without permission, but mentioning the author, is like stealing with saying who I have stolen from. It is still stealing. – Matthias Apr 26 '17 at 16:01
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    @Matthias Copyright requires determining whether permission was given. This can be difficult depending on how hard it is to find and understand the license for the content. Furthermore handling copyright violation complaints is completely different from handling plagiarism violation complaints because copyright violation complaints must follow a legally-mandated process whereas plagiarism is subject to SE's own policies only. – Gilles Apr 26 '17 at 16:19
  • @Gilles Why not put the burden on the author? Make it an SE policy that the author of a post that embeds pictures needs to make it plausible upon request that he has the permission to use the pictures. If he fails to convince the mod, then remove the picture. It can still be linked to (if available online). It sucks that there are users who make their posts more attractive (thus gaining rep) with attributed, but nevertheless stolen pics and have nothing more to fear than an occasional DV. It's simply not fair. – Matthias Apr 26 '17 at 17:23
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    @Matthias There's a legal process for this already. If moderators or Stack Exchange get it wrong, they may be held complicit of copyright infringement. Conversely, copyright claims are sometimes abused for censorship (“Don't publish that quote of mine. [The quote is removed.] I never said that!”). Having an SE policy on top of the legal policy would make it much more difficult to get it right. – Gilles Apr 26 '17 at 18:26
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    @Matthias As for the unfairness of extensive quote abuse, there is an SE policy: moderators are encouraged to get rid of the post unless it is demonstrably useful, and to get rid of the user if it gets to be a significant problem. – Gilles Apr 26 '17 at 18:27
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Moderators are volunteers and not here to police possible copyright violations, so please don’t flag it.

If you think that an image has been copied against its terms of use, then contact the copyright holder who can then contact Stack Exchange to sort it out (whether that’s taking the image down or even paying a fee is up to SE and the copyright holder).

You could edit the image out, but that runs the risk of reducing the value of the question or answer. However, it’s not really your responsibility to do this.

  • Really? I'm a volunteer too but just an editor, not a mod. A few times I've replaced an img link with a plain URL with text saying it's a link to a copyright photo. This seems a lot easier than trying to figure out how to contact the image copyright owner - which I only did on one occasion to request permission to use an image. Have I been doing the wrong thing? – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 13:15
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    @hippietrail - Is it really your place to edit it out though? Unless you're the copyright holder it's not really your responsibility. – ChrisF Oct 9 '14 at 13:18
  • I don't know. Not everything I do on SE is out of responsibility, perhaps almost none of it. Generally I want my questions answers, want to help others, want the sites to succeed, and want to contribute to the success of the whole system and to promote it to others. In fact I thought I had read somewhere years back about watching out for copyright infringement on SE, which is why I first did it. But not being able to find a canonical help page, blog post, or meta question, I guess I imagined that or brought it over from Wikpedia ... – hippietrail Oct 9 '14 at 13:23

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