March / April 2017

Warning: Graphic Content

Amy Loerch

Unless it’s clear that a graphic is in the public domain or can be reprinted without permission, you should assume that it’s protected by copyright.

While most people in scientific and technical fields understand that copyright protection applies to the written word, far fewer realize that it applies in different ways to graphics. Indeed, there exist a number of widely held misconceptions in the scientific community about using borrowed graphics.

I’ve cited the source: Many people mistakenly believe it’s permissible to use a figure (or portion of it) without permission if they acknowledge the original. That’s how they quote text, after all. However, the two are not the same. Unless the figure is in the public domain, using it without permission may well be copyright infringement.

I’m not using much: It doesn’t matter how large the original work is, or how much of it you’re using. If you want to borrow a figure, you must have the copyright holder’s permission.

I’m going to modify it: Incorporating new material into a copyrighted graphic or figure may produce what’s known as a “derivative work.” This can only be done with authorization from the original holder, and must usually be credited as “adapted with permission.”

It’s from a nonprofit organization: Nonprofit doesn’t mean public domain. Some organizations, like ICH, allow material to be used without permission as long as they are identified as the copyright holder and any modifications to the original are noted. Others, like ISO and ISPE, require permission to republish material. Be sure to check the organization’s website for reuse parameters and contact information.

The bottom line—unless it’s clear that a graphic is in the public domain or can be reprinted without permission, assume that it’s protected and permission is required to use it. Depending on the copyright holder, this process can take weeks or even months.


A good rule of thumb is that whoever will publish the work (i.e., present it in its final form) is responsible for acquiring reprint permissions:

  • If you’re preparing a slide deck that will be presented at a conference, you should contact the copyright holder for permission to use the work.
  • If you’re submitting an article for publication, the book or magazine editorial staff may submit the request instead, since they will hold the copyright after the work is published. When working with a journal or other publication, however, it’s important that you identify all material from other sources when you submit the manuscript so that the editors can begin the permission request process.

Always get permission from the copyright holder in writing. Permission letters often require that specific language accompany reprinted graphics; be sure to follow any such instructions carefully. Tables C and D in article "Understanding Cleanliness Classifications for Life Science Facilities", for example, were reprinted with permission from ISO. You can see the source credit that was mandated by the organization beneath each table.As a member of the scientific community, ISPE is committed to a fair and open editorial process that protects copyright for all authors and publishers. This upholds the foundation of trust that is at the heart of scientific scholarship and research and reduces the potential for copyright infringement, which may result in significant legal penalties.1 ,2 ,3 ,4 ,5 ,6