Taxonomy is the discipline responsible for charting the world’s organismic diversity, understanding ancestor/descendant relationships, and organizing all species according to a unified taxonomic classification system. Taxonomists document the attributes (characters) of organisms, with emphasis on those can be used to distinguish species from each other. Character information is compiled in the scientific literature as text, tables, and images. The information is presented according to conventions that vary among taxonomic domains; such conventions facilitate comparison among similar species, even when descriptions are published by different authors. There is considerable uncertainty within the taxonomic community as to how to re-use images that were included in taxonomic publications, especially in regard to whether copyright applies. This article deals with the principles and application of copyright law, database protection, and protection against unfair competition, as applied to images. We conclude that copyright does not apply to most images in taxonomic literature because they are presented in a standardized way and lack the individuality that is required to qualify as ‘copyrightable works’. There are exceptions, such as wildlife photographs, drawings and artwork produced in a distinctive individual form and intended for other than comparative purposes (such as visual art). Further exceptions may apply to collections of images that qualify as a database in the sense of European database protection law. In a few European countries, there is legal protection for photographs that do not qualify as works in the usual sense of copyright. It follows that most images found in taxonomic literature can be re-used for research or many other purposes without seeking permission, regardless of any copyright declaration. In observance of ethical and scholarly standards, re-users are expected to cite the author and original source of any image that they use.