Can You Use Cartoons in Your Presentations? Is it Illegal?


While many people include cartoons in their presentations, it is often very confusing whether it is legal or not to use cartoons in your presentations.

In order to use cartoons in your presentations, you may need permission from the owner or even pay them as most cartoons are copyrighted. If you don’t want to pay, you can only use cartoons that carry the Creative Commons License or if their inclusion falls under the “Fair Use” rules.

All in all, this can be a bit of a legal minefield for many people. However, with just a few simple considerations (listed below) you’ll have a much clearer understanding of what you can and can’t use in your presentation. 

Should You Use Cartoons in Your Presentations?

Cartoons are a great tools for using in a presentation!

Any means of visually summing up what you are saying in your presentation is something that you can use to really add value to what you are saying. A cartoon could be used to illustrate the general topic that you are discussing, or it could be used to highlight a specific point.

Importantly, cartoons often offer a bit of light relief for both you and the audience. If you use a cartoon in your presentation, it often puts a smile on the faces of the audience, then the chances are that you will feel much more comfortable talking to them as a result.

It will ultimately help in creating an affinity between you and the audience, which you can then feed on to have the greatest possible impact on them.

Are Cartoons Protected Under Copyright?

The basic answer is that yes, every cartoon is protected by some form of copyright law. Copyright arises automatically on the creation of any cartoon and there do not need to be any steps taken in order to register it as copyrighted. As such, it is often said that copyright arises ‘before the ink is dry upon the paper’.

So, just because you can find a cartoon on Google Images, it doesn’t mean that you can use it freely as you wish.

A cartoon would be classed as an artistic work which is in the class of ‘classic’ or ‘Literary, Dramatic, Musical and Artistic (LDMA)’ copyrights.

For copyright to exist the cartoon must have originality (i.e. it is the author’s own work and not copied) and there must be a level of minimum effort that is being met (which is actually a very low level and is irrespective of artistic quality).

However, in some cases a cartoons’ copyright may have expired or may be open to use by anyone given its standing under the Creative Commons License. Typically, copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years from the end of the year of the author’s death. Therefore, if a cartoon is older than that, you are free to use it as you please.

Importantly, you can’t just attribute the cartoon to get around the copyright. Although many cartoon artists might appreciate the publicity, the reality is that simply having your name listed next to your cartoon isn’t going to pay your bills.

Could you End Up in Trouble for Using Cartoons Illegally?

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However, you can very easily find yourself breaking the law if you use cartoons that are actually copyrighted. It is a serious crime and although you might think you can get away with it, it is neither worth it nor fair for you to use a copyrighted image – even if it’s a cartoon.

If someone found out that you had used work, they owned in your presentation then they would have the right to sue you for doing so. This could result in you having to pay damages to them, or in the case that it was deemed that you had profited from the use of their material, you could be forced to pass those profits on to them. 

Most of the time, however, you will not get taken to court for using a copyrighted cartoon in your presentation. In reality, most cases are brought to an end with a ‘cease and desist’ letter from the holder of the copyright. That said, it is not advisable to put yourself in a position where this would be the outcome in the first place.

What is Copyright?

Copyright protects the results and expressions of creative ability, which of course includes the creation of a cartoon. Therefore, the owner of the copyright (typically the person who created the cartoon) has the exclusive right to copy, publish, perform or show in public and/or to adapt the work. Therefore, if you use someone else’s cartoon in your presentation slides, without their explicit permission, then you would be infringing on their copyright.

It’s important to stress that copyright can even be infringed if just part of the cartoon is reproduced without the owner’s permission. So ultimately, any use of the cartoon can be deemed as a breach of copyright; and you can even be punished for just facilitating others to reproduce a cartoon as well – even if you don’t explicitly do it yourself.

What is a Creative Commons License?

Creative Commons Licenses give free access to use a particular artwork, cartoon, piece of music or photograph by any organisation or member of the public.

There are several layers of Creative Commons License, with some giving complete freedom for anyone to use a cartoon, and others allowing only non-commercial use for an image. In which case, you are able to use the cartoon in your presentation so long as you are not profiting directly from it.

Items that are entirely free for public use are known as being in the ‘public domain’. This typically includes cartoons by artists who died more than 70 years ago, and occasionally an artist may choose to waive their copyright in order to allow its use by anyone in the public domain.

Although, this is not very common, and the chances are if the cartoon is newer than 70 years old then you will have to consider its copyright.

Is There a Workaround for Using Cartoons Legally?

You might think that the reality is that nobody will ever know if you are using the work without permission; and so, go ahead by putting it in your presentation anyway.

However, while this may be the case, there are a couple of things that you can do in order to eliminate any doubt that what you are including in your presentation is fair and legal.

First of all, if you’re feeling creative, you can try and reproduce the cartoon yourself. There is no copyright on the idea or joke contained in a cartoon; so as long as you recreate it with your own skill to use in your own presentation then it is fair game. However, in this case you must make sure to add your own creative flair to your new cartoon so as not to infringe on the original image’s copyright.

However, in reality the best way to work around copyright issues is to pay for access to use the cartoon you want to use. You may have to pay the particular artist, or you might have to go through an agency or website who hold the copyright for the artist.

While this might feel a bit of a pain, it is important to consider that in order for artists to be able to produce the cartoons that we find enjoyment in and derive value from, they have to get paid. As the old anti-movie piracy advert used to say, “You wouldn’t steal a car”, so you shouldn’t illegally download a movie. By doing so, you are depriving the people who made it from the money they should be paid.

What is the ‘Fair Use’ Rule and How can You use Copyrighted Cartoons Under it?

There are a limited number of situations in which you would be legally allowed to use a copyrighted cartoon. For example, if you are a student or teacher, then you have the right to use cartoons as part of your work because they are for educative purposes.

Similarly, if you are reviewing a cartoon in your presentation then you are also allowed to use the cartoon in full – even if it is copyrighted. However, the chances are that for most people this isn’t how you would be intending to use the cartoon anyway, so this doesn’t apply.

In these cases, you can use copyrighted images, including cartoons, on the premise of ‘fair use’. Unfortunately, the rules around ‘fair use’ are relatively loose, which means that it is often more of a judgement call on your part as to whether or not you are using the cartoon in this way.

Thankfully, the US have a Fair Use Index to help “make the principles and application of fair use more accessible and understandable to the public by presenting a searchable database of court opinions.”

Final Thoughts

Yes, you can use cartoons in your presentation; and in many ways you really should! They can bring something different to your presentation and help endear you to your audience.

However, you must pay attention to issues surrounding copyright and do everything you can to make sure that not only do you not get caught out, but that you also appropriately support and acknowledge whoever it is that made the cartoon that you want to use.

Be careful as to how you use images you find on the web, and always make sure you understand the laws surrounding the copyright of a cartoon before you decide to put it into your presentation.

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