According to the U.S. Copyright office, the owner of a copyrighted work may bring an infringement lawsuit against you if you violate the owner's copyright. Existing copyright laws applicable to traditional media, such as print and video, also apply to works on the internet. This means that copyright laws protect all text, music videos and images on the web, even if no copyright notice is visible on a website.
Public Domain Images
Not all images on the internet are copyright-protected. Images in the public domain are free to use without obtaining permission. Images in the public domain are usually there because their copyrights expired. The Copyright Office recommends verifying that an image is in the public domain before using it on the internet.
"Fair Use" Images
The "fair use" law excludes copyright enforcement for some images on the web. For example, copyright laws may not protect photos and images used by news organisations, universities and internet review sites. Factors that determine an image's "fair use" status include intent of the image user and the effect that use of the image may have on its market value. The line between copyright infringement and "fair use" is not well-defined.
Many sites on the web link to images that exist on other sites. Sometimes the site owners will give permission for others to link to their images. Other times, they may never know that other sites are using their work. A 2000 federal judgment ruled that hyperlinking is not a copyright infringement because no physical transfer of image data from one site to another occurs when a web user views a hyperlinked image. Many sites and businesses encourage hyperlinking of their images to increase traffic to their site.
Is it legal to change an existing image and use it on your website? According to the Copyright Office, you are free to change an image as much as you like. However, the copyright will still belong to the image's original creator. You must get the copyright owner's permission before claiming copyright ownership of your creation.