Collage and Copyright

What can you use in a published collage?
Photo by George Milton on

Yesterday one of my students asked about including a collage in her book manuscript. Her book directs students through a number of creative projects, one of which is making a collage. The students can naturally use copyrighted photographs and postcards of art in their collages. This is fair use.

But what my student wanted to know was what permissions she would need to include such a collage in her book. My first thought was “the collage is original so that makes it okay,” but copyright is an insanely tricky topic so I looked it up.

Some sources said NO, you cannot use copyright material. Others said that if you can easily obtain permission than you should. Hmm . . . what? Is that really how the law works? If it is easy, than do this, but if not than do that? I don’t think so.

And, also what are the guidelines to this for copyright and so forth? Part of the reason I ask this, is that for a lot of the collage work you can use images for personal use, but what about if you put your collage work into a book?

So my advice to her, and to you, would be this. If you want to use a copyrighted image in a collage that will be published (self/indie or traditional), then get permission. If you don’t want to hastle with that, use copyright free materials.

Fortunately there are a number of ways to find these materials.

  • Do a Google search for Creative Commons Zero or CC0 images. These are images that are free to be used however you want to use them.
  • You can find CC0 images at Pixabay or Pexels.
  • Some museums make all of their online collections available for use. One of these museums is the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. They have an extensive collection of paintings and photographs.
  • Some libraries put a small part of their collection online for free use. One of these is the Library of Congress. Check out “Free to Use and Reuse.”

I had never considered this before but I suspect this is why so much collage illustration is done with various types of art papers, fabric, natural materials and the like.  Getting permission for every copyrighted piece used in every collage in a picture book would be a huge task.

The solution? Non-copyrighted papers and CC0 images of all kinds.