Copyright, Part II: Beyond the Law

Whenever I’m in doubt about whether I should use something or not, I think of Roz Stendahl and her excellent advice, years ago. She pointed out that taking a photograph you find online and tracing the outline and using that is not fine. It may be unrecognizable to the photographer, but that doesn’t make any difference:  you used something someone else created, and that’s not OK. You know it, and you’ll think about it every time you look at the piece you’ve made.

Roz’s excellent advice? Create your own images. Now, Roz can draw and paint, and she does so marvelously, and when we talked about this, I thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah–easy for *you* to say, but I’m not going to be able to create images of things I want to use, no way.” I can’t speak for Roz, but I’m guessing her advice would be: learn to draw by practicing drawing. I’m just guessing here, of course, but it’s excellent advice: if you want to make art, you should be practicing drawing anyway, as a practice and a skill.

I don’t draw (shhhhhh–don’t tell Roz). While I’d love to be able to draw like the people whose work I so admire, I don’t think it’s going to be happening because it’s not a priority in my life. For me, the answer to the problem of creating my own images involves a camera and Photoshop Elements. Take photographs of everything. Everywhere you go, take photos of stuff: cars, spoons, dogs, lions at the zoo. Take tons of photographs and save them. Then, when you need an image of a Volkswagen, you can find it in your files and do with it what you will.

What this means is that if you need an image of, say, a coffee mug, you don’t have to page through all your magazines, tear out a photo, figure out how to alter it so you won’t get sued, and then use it knowing you cheated. Instead, you go through your photo files, find a coffee cup, figure out if you want it to look like a sketch or a stamp or a photocopy, or if you want to print it out and trace it, or if you want to put it up on the monitor and actually try to draw it from that. It’s your coffee cup–you took the photo.

Now, I can hear some of you saying that the images you like best to use in your work are, gee, Victorian women and children. Guess how I guessed that. If the images you want to use are photographs, then you’re going to have to find out whether or not those are protected by copyright (photographers have rights, too), and think about how you feel about selling work you make using images created by someone else, and then go from there. I can’t help you there. I’m certainly not going to tell you what’s OK and what’s not. But I want to urge you to think about this the way I do: what would Roz say? What does your conscience say? And what does your artistic soul say? Is it really your art if the central image is something created by someone else? Can you take the same pride in a work that relies on someone else’s work you’ve altered as you would in something that came from an image you created yourself?

In short, if you’re creating art that you hope to show or sell or use to teach, you need to do two things: First, you need to familiarize yourself with the law. Not someone’s interpretation of the law, not what your sister-in-law says–not unless your sister-in-law is a copyright attorney. Don’t take your friends’ word on this.

And, second–and way more important–you need to think about what it is that you want to do. Do you just want to make stuff to show and sell and use for teaching, never mind where it came from? And your only concern is that you don’t get in trouble for it?

Or do you want to make stuff that comes from you, from your brain and your ideas, your experiences and your journey through life? Stuff that no one else could make because it’s yours? Just because you can get away with something under copyright law doesn’t mean it’s the path you want to take in creating work you can be proud of.


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4 Responses to Copyright, Part II: Beyond the Law

  1. AndreaR says:

    The only time I will use an image that is not my own drawing, especially in soft block stamp carving, is when I take it from something like the Dover coopyright free materials. Even then, I make sure I read all the disclaimers and permission information before going ahead. When in doubt, I don’t.

  2. I joined just so I can post on this. Such an interesting topic. Copyright issues are growing more complex every day.

    “RiP: A remix manifesto” is an interesting documentary that deals with the issue. The film takes a stance on the copyright battle that is just beginning to be told.

    Taking your own photos of items isn’t always enough to create new work. So many things these days are copyrighted (paintings, sculptures, craft items, architectural works, jewelry, clothing …) who knows when you are stepping on toes?

    New Orleans Indians now want copyright protection for the colorful Mardi Gras suits they make. They want a cut of any money made from any picture taken of them

    • Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

      Excellent NYT piece, Kathryn–thank you! You have a great point about things being copyrighted re: taking photos. I didn’t even consider those–I was thinking about photos of things like, well, coffee cups (something I actually needed), animals, trees, flowers. There *is* a lot to think about, for sure.