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Clip Art Facts & Copyrights

Free Light Bulb Clip ArtClip art images have become a huge industry online but remain one of the most misunderstood as far as usage and copyright laws. I’ll try to explain what type of clip art is actually free for you to use and what images you could get you in hot water with the law. Please link to this article if you find it helpful but do not copy it and post it on another website because it is copyrighted by Curtis D. Tucker.

What is Clip Art?

Early Clip Art

Clip art came about in the early years of printing when newspapers and publishers were in need of quick and affordable images to fill their pages. They began clipping images from published pages and reusing them over again in new publications. It wasn’t long before stock houses or syndicates began to spring up and “line art” was sold in very large clip art books that were purchased on a subscription basis.

Funny Cartoon LemonI personally remember using stock art from the Metro syndicate while working in a grocery ad layout department in the early 90’s. We would use an X-acto knife to cut images from the catalogs and then run them through a waxer which would help us stick them to our layout boards. This process was called “paste-up”.  The wax allowed for the easy removal of the clip art which meant it each image could be reused many times.

Digital Clip Art

For the purposes of this article I will define clip art as digital images which include cartoons, line art and illustrations. Photos, fonts, icons and backgrounds would also fall under many of these guidelines but I deal mostly with images. A digital image could be defined as an image that can be sent electronically or burned to a CD. Digital images come in many different file formats including bitmap files ending in .GIF, .BMP, .JPEG, .PNG and .TIFF to name a few. Digital vector files usually end in .EPS, .AI and .CDR.

Digital clip art has become very popular online and can be found on thousands of websites and directories. The main concern with digital clip art is knowing whether it is copyrighted, royalty free or has become part of the public domain. I will try to explain very simply what you should consider when using or printing anything with clip art found online.

Beware that just because an image is online and you have access to it that does not make it free or even available for any kind of use. You can find yourself breaking copyright laws if you’re not careful. Follow the instructions below and you should be safe.

Clip Art Copyrights

Legally using a piece of clip art that you have found online can lead to a little bit of investigation to make sure the image falls into the correct copyright uses you have planned for it. Are there many different categories of copyrighted clip art. Below is an explanation of each.

  • Public Domain – An image that is considered to be in the public domain is either an image that has an expired copyright, has been donated and all rights released or the images was originally created to be free of any copyrights. Clip art that is in the public domain is more times than not very old images that look dated and have been used hundreds of times in the past. Most images were created prior to 1923 and the copyright has expired. There are also large collections of images that have been donated to public domain projects. Theses are very generic looking pictures and can normally be found in free clip art collections. You may have to do some research to find out which images are actually in the public domain. Thousands of images can be found at
  • Free Clip Art – The next best thing to clip art found in the public domain is free clip art. More modern images can be found online for free if the owner displays in writing the right for you to use their images for free. You still need to read the restrictions of free clip art and just because it is on a free website does not mean it is really free. The best rule of thumb to follow on free clip art is to search for images on websites run by the actual creator of the art. is run by me and I have given written permission to use any of the GIF images on my site for free. There are thousands of websites that only scrape images from the Internet and list them as free clip art so that they can earn AdSense money from the traffic. Look for artists and cartoonists that have started their own websites and beware of the others. Most free clip art is available for non-commercial use only and can never be included as a part of another persons free clip art without written permission.
  • Royalty-Free Clip Art – Royalty-free clip art is actually not free at all. There is usually a small fee involved to use the images in commercial printing but once that fee is paid the buyer is free of having to pay any other royalties or licenses. Royalty-free pictures usually come in collections on CD or online. There are many very large stock type websites that sell thousands of royalty-free graphics. Some charge per image while others charge a subscription to join. Either way they are free of royalties not cost. The vector images on this website are royalty-free and are delivered by me through email while the bitmap images are free and can be saved to a desktop by the user. So there are websites that have a combination of legal choices. Be sure and know the approved uses of any clip art you find. A sample of royalty-free clip art can be found at
  • Licensed Clip Art – The least used type of clip art is licensed clip art. These are images that might be created for one or a limited number of clients. Licensed clip art images might be cold to an app maker to be used on one game for a limited number of years for a larger fee. These images might later be resold to another client, but again, with very limited uses. Some licenses might be exclusive while others might be for first-time use. A licensed piece of clip art is usually higher priced but used by very few clients. Many big brands will license their characters to larger corporations for very high licensing fees. Much like MetLife licensing Snoopy for their ad campaigns.
  • Copyrighted Clip Art – A copyrighted image that is not available for use would be a graphic that is created especially for a single client or is part of a collection that can only be purchased. Most all big brand character clip art is copyrighted. Very few people have the right to use any Disney, Warner Brothers, Marvel or other famous character clip art. Although these images can be found easily online you do not have the right to infringe on another companies trademarked or copyrighted character. You can find yourself in court if you use a copyrighted image commercially and can even find yourself in trouble using trademarked images personally. Mickey Mouse, Superman, Bugs Bunny, Felix the Cat, Hello Kitty and thousands of other top name characters are NOT available for you to use even if they are listed on someones website. Learn more about copyright laws at the US Copyright Office.

You must also be very careful when using clip art for different projects. Clip art is great for filler illustrations on websites, newsletters and inside books and other publications. You might run into trouble when using clip art as part of your logo or product labeling. If you start a company or create a product that will be seen nationally you will want to protect your copyright to prevent other businesses from copying your “look”. If you use a piece of clip art in your logo or packaging, you cannot copyright or trademark the image for yourself. Even if you use a partial piece of clip art and alter it you can run into trouble when trying to make it your own.

Recently a group called Creative Commons was formed to help creators license their works. They have created six licenses from which you can choose. Each displays a description of your work in a way so that others know what rights you have chosen to release under the terms of that particular license.


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