And now for something completely different…

I first took an interest in copyright years ago when I was producing commercial illustration. Not because someone had stolen my work but because I wanted to be informed about my rights with regard to my own work and also to know what I was, and more importantly was not, allowed to do with other people’s work.

History has taught me that I seem to be in a tiny minority. While almost no one could be in much doubt these days about the illegality of copying music and video, few people seem to understand, or care about, copyright in relation to artworks.

Before I continue, let me state that I am not a lawyer and do not have in-depth knowledge of copyright law. But I think I can give the reader a few things to think about.

Firstly, it’s “CopyRIGHT”, not “CopyWRITE”. 

Copyright, as the term implies, is about the “right to copy” something. It could be a song, a movie, a painting, a piece of pottery or, indeed, written words. Copyright exists the moment a work is created. It does not have to be registered or contain a copyright (©) symbol. Even a quick sketch on a café napkin has automatic copyright protection.

If you want to use someone else’s work but have no understanding of your rights then it might be safest to live by the simplest “rule”:

If you didn’t make it and you didn’t pay for the right to copy it, you probably don’t have the right to copy it. So don’t do it.

That’s pretty blunt, and yes, there are exceptions, but it sums up almost every situation you might find yourself in when considering if you have the right to use artwork, including photographs, for your own purposes.

You don’t own the internet and almost all the things on it don’t, and never will, belong to you.

When you want to make an advertisement, logo or promotional print for your club, business or just for yourself, you can’t legally just go to “Google Images”, find a picture you like and use it. It’s stealing.

Google does not own the rights to the images it serves up in a search so Google has no power to authorise the use of those images. Think of a Google search as “window shopping” – you can see the products you want but that doesn’t mean you can just take them and use them without permission. The images almost always belong to someone and that someone probably isn’t you. It’s a pain, but that’s reality for you.

Exceptions might apply if the author specifically gives rights to use their works for certain purposes. For example, I state in my sidebar that my blog images can be used freely in some circumstances and that permission can be sought for other uses – and I have given that permission, for free, to several people who have asked. But you cannot use one in an advertisement for your business, for example, without permission.

There are also exceptions in the law that might allow you to use an image without permission. Copyright law differs from country to country but such exceptions might include:

  • review or criticism
  • research or study
  • news-reporting
  • judicial proceedings or professional legal advice
  • parody or satire

[source: wikipedia

There’s also quite a bit of nonsense surrounding copyright law…

Silly reasons to infringe copyright:

  •  “it’s okay if you change 10% of it” – nonsense. 
  • “it’s okay, I’m not making money off it” – doesn’t matter
  • “the web is public domain” – nonsense
  • “I improved it. You should be happy” – nonsense
  • “I’m giving you better exposure” – doesn’t matter
  • “I included your signature or link” – doesn’t matter
  • “I don’t know who owns it” – not you
  • “I tried to contact the author” – you failed
  • “I was on a deadline” – doesn’t matter
  • “It didn’t have a © symbol on it” – doesn’t need one
  • “I copied it from an amateur” – it’s still copyrighted
  • “It said ‘free desktop wallpaper'” – it didn’t say “copy me”

There are more. Some people seem to be able to easily remember the complicated nonsense, but never the simple reality.

Copyright and fine art:

Artists, and some art owners, should learn about copyright and how it might apply to them. 

Buying a painting, for example, does not mean you also own the right to reproduce that painting. You own the item, but not the intellectual property. You can hang it on your wall. You can re-frame it (usually). You can probably burn it to warm yourself on a winter’s night. But you can’t make postcards from the image because that requires copying. The artist always retains the copyright unless they explicitly transfer that right, in whole or in part, to someone else – or maybe if they died over 70 years ago (and that number keeps changing).

Artists often learn their craft by copying existing works. They might copy from the old masters, from “how to” books or from workshop demonstrators. Obviously demonstration pieces are intended to be copied for learning purposes – but that’s pretty much where the right to copy ends. Copied pieces should not usually be offered for sale as the copying artist’s own work and should never be entered into competitions since the creative foundation of the painting is a large part of what gets judged – and the expression of the idea isn’t yours, it belongs to the original artist.

The lines can sometimes seem a little blurry and if you’re unsure, seek legal advice. If that’s too expensive, then you probably can’t afford the risk of a copyright infringement anyway.

The world is growing smaller by the day. Things that happen in the most isolated corner of Australia can now be seen, within seconds, from the other side of the world. To illustrate why this matters, let me briefly tell you the tale of  “Cooks Source”, a small, free, hand-delivered publication produced in America since 1997.

Cooks Source were apparently reproducing, without permission, recipes they’d sourced on the internet. When they were caught out by the author of some of the recipes, Cooks Source defended their action claiming the internet is “considered public domain” and effectively telling the author she should be happy they’d used them. “The internet” retaliated and within hours word spread across blogs and social media sites illustrating a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect (where an attempt to hide a situation results in it receiving much wider publicity). The magazine’s own Facebook page was bombed with complaints. I witnessed it all happening – it was a sight to behold.

After some 13 years of operation, Cooks Source closed two weeks after the internet backlash. It was an incredible lesson in where copyright infringement might lead.

You can read the full story on wikipedia.

Again, I am not a lawyer. Do not rely on this as advice. If you’re in Australia, however, you might want to visit the Copyright Council of Australia‘s website or Arts Law for more detailed information.

Comments are very welcome and, I’ll make adjustments or additions to this article as the need arises.