when I was at design college 2013 we were told (for educational purposes) that we could use images from the net (only photographs) to incorporate into designs for posters, collages, magazine covers, etc, and that we obviously could not make any money from these designs, but that we could use them in our portfolio. Is this true or false? I now have an FB page and, as a recent graduate, want to put up some of these designs on my page. But is that copyright, or is it permissible as an example for work I've done, so long as no money is being made from it? Do I need to state that photography wasn't original? (I'm not even sure now where I got them from!) I usually put a copyright label on my posted works to cover myself, but if the above described is permissible, then do I need to not use that copyright label as its not completely original? (because I have used some photographs from the net which have then been rearranged/edited/etc etc and incorporated into a design).

Any help would be much appreciated! Thanks!

  • This is no legal advice but I would look into if the Right of Subsistence applies to this. Where I live, I believe that I could argue my Right of Subsistence if the following scenario applied: being employed at the same agency for 5 years and upon leaving, them not allowing an employee to ever show anything he/she has worked on while employed there (with proper attribution of course). I'm not sure this would protect you completely but I would definitely include in your portfolio that the projects are academic projects.
    – curious
    Mar 14, 2014 at 20:40
  • 1
    Even in 2013 finding royalty free images was very easy task. There's absolutely no need for copyright images. You should take it down from Facebook immediately unless you want to get sued. Also, since when is Facebook the proper place to upload a portfolio? Mar 14, 2018 at 13:19
  • @Emilie what does any of what you said have to do with copyright? It doesn't give you a free pass to infringe other peoples copyright. Only museums and archives can ignore copyright law to some extent. Mar 14, 2018 at 13:21
  • @LateralTerminal It's a bit difficult to recall what I was thinking exactly since I answered this 4 years ago, but there is such a thing as Fair Use in educational contexts. The problem is that most institutions are not really sure how it applies and teachers lack information. Learning using various material is fine IMO but the problem is when someone starts displaying these pieces in their portfolio to become hired. This is why I told the OP to look into their Right of Subsistence but I was not implying that it applies in this situation, just giving them a lead to look into.
    – curious
    Mar 21, 2018 at 13:08
  • @Emilie I've tried looking up Right of Subsistence Multiple times with different context and from what I've researched it doesn't exist. Could you provide a link that explains your reasoning? Mar 21, 2018 at 18:43

5 Answers 5


Copyright is copyright. Whether you are making money off it or not is irrelevant (though, note that you ARE making money off of it as you're using it for promotional purposes).

For use in an in-class project? Likely no big deal in the grand scheme of things. But as part of your online portfolio? That could (even if unlikely) cause you some issues. I'd redo the work with properly licensed art.

So yes, your college was wrong. Also rather ironic ignoring intellectual property issues while educating people that will end up making a living with their IP. I'd ask for a refund.


For our design projects, my college requires the use of public domain images or your own original work, especially for potential portfolio work.

We must also cite all images even the personal work.

If the image is not acceptable for commercial work it is not acceptable in our portfolio.


I'd imagine that now that you are using them to gain work (as portfolio pieces), this makes them inappropriate to use. From my understanding, leveraging them to make a profit means they no longer fall under the 'fair use' umbrella.

It sucks, because had you known this back at school, you could have easily derived your works from something else (iStock images etc).

(not a legal expert)

  • I've thought the same thing before and now your answer makes me think... if the portfolio involves only professional projects which include licensed stock photos, I'm not sure if most licenses cover that use or if you would have to get an additional license to display in the portfolio.
    – curious
    Mar 13, 2014 at 15:12
  • @Emilie it would, of course, depend on the license, but most licensed art would be licensed for the piece it was used for. Your portfolio is essentially just showing that particular piece.
    – DA01
    Mar 13, 2014 at 15:55
  • With a client, you can write it into a contract that the work can be used in your portfolio. But think about it if all your work has been created as an employee. Asking "Hey can I use the work I create on the job to help me find work elsewhere" doesn't really fly. I assume many people "borrow" work they've done that belongs, at least partially/legally to someone else. It may not stand up in court, but IMHO, the most important thing is that you are truthful about your role in the production/work and are willing to remove it if requested.
    – John
    Mar 13, 2014 at 16:00
  • @DA01 It doesn't seem that fair considering you would have to buy the license twice to display on a business card and on a flyer for the same company. The portfolio is a promotional piece in itself also and is now serving as a sales tool for two businesses when displayed in a portfolio. Just wondering.
    – curious
    Mar 14, 2014 at 20:32
  • @Emilie perhaps that wasn't the best choice of words. Most art is licensed for the 'project' it will be used on (which may very well consist of multiple pieces). Your portfolio would be showing that project, of which there was a valid license for the art.
    – DA01
    Mar 14, 2014 at 20:38

I'm not giving you legal advice however student work that contains copyrighted material falls under the umbrella of the "Fair Use" guidelines according to U.S Copyright Laws and your work may also be protected depending on how "edited" the copyrighted material is to its original unedited state. You can read the law yourself and make your own determination.


I would personally state the project was for educational purposes or it was produced in an educational setting.

  • 5
    Just a point, there is no such thing as editing a piece of work enough to get around copyright. That's a very common misconception. If the original work can be discerned at all, it's an infringement. Hence the Shepard Ferry/Associated Press case with the Obama photograph and subsequent illustration.
    – Scott
    Mar 13, 2014 at 7:17
  • I believe "non-profit educational purposes" in that document is meant to describe an act of copying for the purposes of critique. Fair use doesn't mean any copying by a schoolchild or student is allowed. Mar 13, 2014 at 15:40
  • This is just wrong. Mar 14, 2018 at 13:16

I apologize for double-answering the same question, but after doing a lot of digging on this topic I found this great article as a reference:


An excerpt from question 2, which asks about using work that you created for an employer/client in your portfolio:

A. This is a relatively easy question. Most copyright lawyers, myself included, believe that reproducing your own work in your portfolio (whether in print or online) is fair use, regardless of who owns the copyright. As a practical matter, showing your work in your portfolio is a common and accepted practice in the design field, and the copyright owners rarely object.

  • Yes yes, but the stock photography is not your work.
    – joojaa
    Mar 20, 2018 at 22:00

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