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Images in the Health Sciences: Privacy & Publicity Rights

Introduction to Publicity & Privacy Rights

Privacy and publicity rights are different and separate from copyright and are important to know about in image use. They pertain to the subjects of a work or image. The National Library of Medicine's Patron Guide to Copyright and Historical Materials explains these rights this way: 

While copyright laws protect the copyright owner's property rights in the work, privacy and publicity rights protect the interests of the people who are the subject of the work. Issues pertaining to privacy and publicity may arise when a [someone] contemplates the use of letters, oral histories, diary entries, photographs, or reportage in visual, audio, and print formats . . .. Because two or more people are often involved in the work (e.g., photographer and subject, interviewer and interviewee) and because of the ease with which various digital media can be reused, photographs, audio files, and motion pictures represent materials in which privacy and publicity issues emerge with some frequency. . . .

While copyright is federally protected under the United States Copyright Act . . ., neither privacy nor publicity rights are subject to federal law. However, they are subject to state laws; what may be permitted in one state may not be permitted in another. Although fair use is a defense to copyright infringement, it is not a defense to claims of violation of privacy or publicity rights. . . .

While a person's right to privacy generally ends with individual's death, publicity rights associated with the commercial value of an individual's name, image, or voice may continue. . . . 

Although the risks of using an image for comment or criticism or other non-commercial use may be less than for use in advertising or other commercial purposes, the risk can still be high if the person depicted is held up to ridicule or presented in a libelous manner. While it is true that famous or public figures who seek recognition have thereby surrendered some privacy, they may retain the right to control the commercial use of their image (likeness, voice, signature, etc.). This principle recognizes that a celebrity's image can be an asset in trade.


The full text of the National Library of Medicine's description of privacy and publicity rights can be found here: 

Resources for Publicity & Privacy Rights