It depends. In Canada, the Copyright Act protects various works including photographs, graphics, maps, plans, drawings, architectural designs, paintings and engravings, all which are considered artistic works.
In general, an artistic work is protected throughout the life of its creator and for a period of 50 years following the author’s death. In Canada, the protection granted to a work generally expires 50 years after the death of the work’s creator or 50 years after the death of the last survivor if there was more than one creator.
More specifically, a copyright grants its holder exclusive rights to:
• reproduce all or any significant part of the work (regardless of the means used for reproduction);
• publish the work (regardless of the support used);
• adapt or modify the work;
• distribute the work;
• authorize a person to carry out any of the acts mentioned above.
As a result, if you find an image that is protected by copyright, you cannot, generally speaking, use it without first having obtained permission from the copyright holder.
Images that are not copyright-protected are:
• images that belong to the public domain (i.e., their creator has been deceased for over 50 years or the images have been released to the public domain from the outset by their creator);
• images that are protected by a Creative Commons licence or another similar licence that allows the creator to define more flexible conditions of use than those provided in the Copyright Act.
Unless specifically mentioned that the image you are interested in is part of the public domain or is royalty-free, you should presume it is copyright-protected. In Canada, a work is protected as soon as it is released, regardless of its medium. The copyright symbol (©) is not necessary for the protection to apply.
In general, the creator of the work is the first copyright holder. For example, unless otherwise indicated, a PhD student who publishes a graphic he created in his dissertation, is the copyright holder of this artistic work. In such situations, you must contact the author of the thesis to obtain permission to use the graphic.
However, an author can transfer all or some of his economic rights. When an author decides to publish a work with a commercial publisher (such as Wiley, Springer or Elsevier), the author will generally transfer his economic rights to the publisher.
Consequently, if the image appeared in a journal or book published by a commercial publisher, usually you must ask the publisher for permission to use it.
Some copyright holders will provide clear information regarding the conditions of use for their works. This is often the case for public organizations Web sites where one can see the mentions of "Notice" or "Conditions of Use," usually at the bottom of the Web pages, outlining what use can be made of the content and when it is necessary to request permission for reuse.
The following example comes for a Government of Canada Website:
To obtain permission to use an image, you must contact the copyright holder.
Most major publishers allow, for a fee, the reuse of published images in scientific articles through an automated rights management system called RightLink®. To access the form to request reuse, click on the article reference included in a bibliographic database (such as ScienceDirect, Wiley Online Library, IEEE Xplore, etc.), then on the link called: "Get Rights and Content", "Request Permissions", the copyright symbol ©, etc. If such a link is not available, contact the publisher directly.
Example from Wiley Online Library:
You must obtain the permission in writing, keep it in a safe place, and make sure the permission is irrevocable.
Remember: Even though you have obtained permission to use an image, your sources should be cited.
In a nutshell, a copyright-protected image cannot be used without permission.. To use a copyright-protected image in any work, article, book, dissertation or thesis, you must first obtain written permission from the copyright holder.
A royalty-free image can be used without obtaining permission for use.
Unless it is specifically stated that the image you are interested in is part of public domain or is royalty-free, you should presume that it is copyright-protected. In Canada, a work is protected as soon as it is released on any support. The copyright symbol (c) is not necessary for the protection to apply.
Remember: Whether you have obtained permission to use an image or have used a royalty-free image, your sources should be cited.
Creative Commons licences allow content creators to assign more flexible conditions of use to their works than those provided in the Copyright Act without transferring their copyrights. The use of images under Creative Commons licence can be an interesting option since these images can be used for certain purposes without asking permission from their creator. To learn more about the various licences of this type, consult the page About Licences.
Consult this Quebec work for an overview of Canada’s Copyright Act.