First of all, I am not a lawyer, so what you’re about to read is based on my own observations and understanding of the law. I won’t profess to be an expert on this subject, and it is a very complex subject indeed, however, I have done some research for my own knowledge, and maybe what I’ve learnt might be of some use to you too. I’m talking about Copyright Law, in relation to photographers and artists.
We’ve all done it before, whether we care to admit it or not. Back when Napster was out and about, I too was happily “sharing” music files with other users, whilst not understanding the implications of file sharing someone else’s hard work for free. Well, I wasn’t so much “sharing” as I was “downloading” music files for my own library, but the result is the same to the poor artist. Haha, now the shoe’s on the other foot, as I find my own artistic works being used by others without my express permission and without remuneration. I’m sure many of you have experienced this at least once – you’re minding your own business as usual, and suddenly out of the blue, you notice your artwork being used by someone else. It may just be as their profile photo for Facebook, or you recognise just a part of your work in a larger piece of Art that they are passing off as their own, or they might have even used your work wholesale without crediting you or asking for your permission first. Or, even worse, they are claiming to be the artist!
When I was growing up, I learnt my Ps and Qs diligently, and I know it is only plain courtesy before using someone else’s work or idea, to ASK first. You wouldn’t drive someone else’s car without first obtaining their permission, right? Well, if you would, then you have no morals and it’s stealing, shame on you! Same with art, music, poetry, books, ideas etc. If it’s someone else’s work, please don’t just help yourself, ask the person, and chances are they might only be too happy to say yes, anyway.
My own personal experience came from Facebook. Every now and then I create digital photography artwork for my husband Geoff aka ElectroCelt. He uses these “visuals” to signal or tag a new track or album coming out. One of his “friends” on Facebook decided, possibly in an attempt to impress ElectroCelt, that he would take one or two of my “visuals” and alter them to his own whims, and then present them back to Geoff as his own work. I happened to chance upon this person’s offering one day on Geoff’s Facebook Wall, and decided to challenge him. Instead of apologising for 1) using my images without first seeking my express permission, 2) using my images without crediting me as the artist, and 3) taking and using my images and altering them so as to look different, he said (and these are his very words, I kid you not): “I merely took your images and improved them”…the cheek!!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I asked this person to kindly remove his images from Facebook, or at least to give credit to me as the artist. At first he wouldn’t budge, and only after I threatened to sue him for breach of copyright (not knowing a jot about it myself, then…but hey, it sounded good and kosher!), did he take them off Facebook.
This article by attorney Sara Hawkins is US-law based, but is equally relevant to other countries. It explains the meaning of “fair use” and outlines 5 important things to consider before using someone else’s work. http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/copyright-fair-use-and-how-it-works-for-online-images/
Read also this article, again by Sara Hawkins, which explains how simply giving the artist a “shout out” while using their image may not be enough and may still infringe copyright. If in doubt, assume that every photo you see is copyrighted, and ASK the ARTIST for permission first. http://lifehacker.com/5992419/the-best-ways-to-be-sure-youre-legally-using-online-photos
Here is a link to some famous, or infamous, cases of breach of copyright. Even well-known artists have been caught out. http://99designs.com/designer-blog/2013/04/19/5-famous-copyright-infringement-cases/
And here is a mother lode of information that you will undoubtedly thank me profusely for. Again, it’s based on US law, but it will be mostly relevant no matter which country you live in. If you read nothing else in this post, read everything in this list: http://painting.about.com/od/copyrightforartistsfaq/
And this useful link for explaining how Creative Commons Licenses work, to help you decide what level of protection you’d want for your work. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/
Now, what about the use of clipart and stickers? This question is particularly relevant to mobile photography artists who use Apps to process their iPhone/Android phone photos. Who owns the copyright of those cute little clipart hearts and bunnies? A couple of years ago, I did email several App developers who offered clipart and stickers on their Apps, to find out…but sadly never heard back from any of them. So, I can only assume that A) the developers drew their own images, or B) they first obtained the permission of the originator of the clipart or it was royalty free, or C) they didn’t bother to ask and just used them anyway. I’m going to give them the benefit of doubt and go for option B.
Dover Publications is my favourite source for clipart at present…Dover specialises in royalty-free images, however, there is a caveat to be aware of when using their clipart. It’s not worded terribly well, and is confusing…but I believe it goes something like “you can use up to 10 images from one publication in one project, any more than 10 and you need to pay for each additional image and/or ask Dover for permission”. Read about it here: http://miniatures.about.com/od/miniaturebasics/gr/dovercd.htm