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Just as an example, images like this http://www.wallpapersxl.com/wallpaper/1366x768/lord-of-the-rings-nature-69103.html are all around the web. They all feature the lotr ring inscription, and backgrounds in different colors. They appear on many wallpaper sites, and are used on websites by many people. Is that legal?

I was unable to make out the original author, because everyone is using them and apparently no one cares about giving sources. Could I use images like this in my own projects?

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Everything you see there is copyright and trademark the Tolkien estate or a derivative work thereof. It's all illegal.

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I suspect that you always run the risk of copyright infringement if you cannot identify the original author or produce a copyright release. Odds are, if it is obvious to you that the work is a derivative of a copyrighted work, then you don't have much of a defense to offer.

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