Copyright, Part I: It’s Not Only About the Law

I’ve been working on a new journal skirt, and on it I’ve used an image that I didn’t create. I was reluctant to talk about the process on my own blog because it involved not just explaining how I used fabric paint and thread and beads, but it also involved showing the image itself, and I’m fully aware that it’s not my image. While it’s an ubiquitous image, appearing on everything from posters to journal covers, that doesn’t mean it’s mine to reproduce. I couldn’t, for instance, transfer it to t-shirts and offer those for sale (although maybe I could; someone else has). In response to my post about this, someone suggested I write about copyright law here, and I cringed. Many, many people have written about copyright law as it pertains to artists–not only on the being-protected-by-copyright end, but on the what-can-I-use-in-my-art end, and almost all of them are much more qualified to tackle the subject than I am. If you’re a collage artist or someone who uses a lot of images from magazines or, really, someone who uses images created by anyone else for anything else, you need to know about copyright law. It’s not enough to plead ignorance or to say, “I’m not selling my stuff; I’m only showing it on my website,” or “I’m not using the whole image; I’m just using parts of it.” That last attitude is one that really irks a lot of people, and understandably so: the idea that, if you’re careful, you can circumvent copyright laws by altering images beyond recognition or using them as less than (pick a percentage: 5%, 10%, 9.753824%) of your work. Because here’s the deal: if you’re spending more time and energy trying to figure out ways to get around copyright law in using other people’s images in your art than you are making actual art, what are you really doing? If you’re thinking, “OK, I’ll take this photo of a dog from this ad, and I’ll shrink it down and flip it so it faces the other way, and I’ll change the color to black instead of brown, and I’ll hand color the eyes and add some teeth, and no one will ever know.”

Maybe they won’t, but you’ll know, and there’s a larger question: What are you doing? And, more important, how do you feel about what you’re doing? Sure, you may be able to alter images so thoroughly that not even the photographer or painter would be able to recognize the image, but the fact is: you’re still using something that doesn’t belong to you. You didn’t create it, you didn’t buy it, you don’t have permission to use it. It’s not your art. And if it makes up a large part of a piece of your work, then–?

In my work, I hear all the time from artists who’ve found images they created being shown on someone else’s blog or website or even in someone else’s Etsy shop. Sometimes it’s a post about “Gee, I love this painting,” but sometimes it’s a “Look what I made with this image I downloaded!” While the latter may seem innocent to you if the person isn’t selling anything, think about how it feels to the artist who created the image:  they worked hard to make something, and now they see it somewhere else, used by someone else. (An aside: if all you’re doing is showing art on your blog, a piece you like and want others to see, make SURE you label it with the artist’s name and link to their site, and do not alter the image. It’s good to ask first even for this, but at the very least, make sure everyone knows who created it and where to see the piece on the artist’s site.) I’ve talked to artists who have stumbled across images they created being sold online, transferred to bags or clothing or  jewelry, used for other people’s blog banners or business cards. Yes–someone recently told me about someone using one of her images on *their* business cards. The person who does this always feigns innocence, saying something like, “But it’s a compliment! I didn’t mean anything by it; I just love your work so much!” Please. I can tell you, from my own experience at seeing something I’d created and had sold across the country now being packaged as kits for sale at the International Quilt Show in Houston: we do not feel flattered. You may think it’s a compliment to use someone else’s image of a frog on your business cards; the person who drew the frog just feels ripped off.

I am not a lawyer, and I’m not going to get anywhere NEAR a discussion of copyright law. No way. I urge you to familiarize yourself with it by reading up on it. You can start here, with a discussion of some of the myths you’ve heard about fair use. Go here to find PDF’s of the actual copyright law of the United States. Google for more information relevant to you and your work.

But I suspect that’s not really what you’re looking for if you’re looking for information about copyright and the art you make. I suspect, from having had this discussion with many people over many years, that what people are looking for is for someone to say, “Oh, go ahead. It’s not that big a deal.” They want someone to tell them it doesn’t matter if they use that cute little pigeon drawing on their apron, and that it’s OK to trace that fabulous boat photograph they found online.

It’s not OK. Here’s the deal: while the law is the law, and being sued for copyright violation is not going to be the happiest time of your life, it’s really much simpler than that. If it’s not yours, don’t use it. Oh, sure–you can stick stuff in your journal–flyers, ads, photographs, programs. Whatever. That’s one thing. But when you take those things and make a piece of art with them–a collage, an assemblage, a mixed media painting–then you’re on an entirely different path, and the only way to avoid the quicksand around the bend is this: use your own images. Create your own stuff, and then you can use it however you want. If you use magazine photos in your journal and then later decide you want to sell photocopies of those journal pages, what are you going to do then? If you think being clever and altering the images so they’re unrecognizable is the way to go, that’s something you’ll have to take up with your conscience and the amount of risk you’re willing to take.

Next time, in Part II, we’ll look at how to avoid the entire issue of knowing whether or not you can use an image in your work. Sound impossible? Not at all.


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2 Responses to Copyright, Part I: It’s Not Only About the Law

  1. peggygatto says:

    I use photos from google and books and magazines in my blog challenge art work. I always name the source/artist /author. I do a lot of digital painting with the images. Never sell, only for the challenge.
    Could you please comment?

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      I wish I could be more help here, but there’s no way I can give legal copyright advice. Yikes! All I know: if you create your own images, you never have to worry.