If you have ever copied and pasted an image from the internet, you may have committed copyright infringement. It’s probably safe to say we’ve all done it at some point. Here’s the least you need to know before we get into the 5 myths.
All images on the internet are covered by copyright unless:
The copyright has expired and the image is now in the public domain (Scenario A)
— or —
The author has given you permission to use the image (Scenario B)
How long does a copyright last? It’s usually the life of the author plus 25 to 70 years depending on the country and the type of work. After that point it may become a public domain image.
Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings are a prime example. The artist died in 1890 so his works became public domain many decades ago — meaning Scenario A is satisfied. However, that doesn’t mean photos of his paintings found on the ‘net are public domain. Photographers own the copyright on their photos, therefore one needs permission before sharing or using them. The Getty Museum has many beautiful photos in their Open Content Collection that can be used for personal and commercial purposes, as long as proper attribution is given — which satisfies Scenario B.
Enough background talk — let’s bust some myths.
Copyright Myth #1
If I find it on the internet it’s fair game. After all, the owner wouldn’t have posted it publicly if he/she didn’t want us to use it.
All artwork and photography is covered by copyright from the moment it’s produced. Pinterest and Google Image Search may serve up interesting images but they can also land one in hot water when these images are used without permission.
IDEAS: Use the advanced search feature on Google Image Search to find images that are licensed for reuse. Type in your search at images.google.com, then click on ‘Tools’ underneath the search box and select ‘Usage Rights.’ Click on any of the filter categories and the search results will be refreshed showing only those with the license type requested. Or download safe-to-use images from a provider like Pixabay.com or Morguefile.com.
Copyright Myth #2
As long as I’m not making money on it, I can’t be sued for using an image without permission.
Copyright laws are meant to protect distribution of the artwork (where and how it gets shared) as well as its profit-making potential. Having said that, those using an image without permission but not profiting directly will likely see a smaller fine than a company who uses the same image on mugs, tee shirts, or art prints for sale. But you still could face having to pay a photographer or artist for having used their image without permission.
Copyright Myth #3
It’s not copyright infringement if I credit the owner or website.
While it’s not quite as bad as posting the work with no credit, one would still be guilty of distributing the work without permission. And it could end up costing a pretty penny. So remember, giving credit is not the same as gaining permission.
Copyright Myth #4
I can make a work of art mine by changing a few things on the original image.
There are a lot of formulas floating around, such as change 7 things — or change 25% of the image — and it becomes yours. Copyright law doesn’t look for differences, it looks for “substantial similarity.” If it is recognizable as having come from the original artist or photographer, chances are the courts will rule in favour of the original artist. See the infographic at the bottom of this post for more information.
Copyright Myth #5
Copyright is only obtained by registering the artistic work and paying a fee.
The moment you or I produce an original work, we own the copyright, full and clear. However, registering one’s work does offer increased protection. The method, costs, and benefits vary by country.
I’m not a copyright professional and this post is not meant as a substitute for legal advice. If you have serious questions about your art, do some research. You may want to engage an intellectual property lawyer, especially if you have created a commercially viable image (one that is easily applied to merchandise).
Any Comments to Add?
I’m always learning new things about copyright law. Feel free to share your ideas or additional information in the comments box.
For Further Reading: Here’s an article written by an artist who took on a large corporation that had stolen her artwork. Protect Your Ideas: Lessons from an Indie Artist Who Waged War on a Mega-Brand.
I also find this infographic quite helpful. It might take a couple of minutes to become comfortable with the format but it’s worth it. Click the infographic to enlarge it (the print is quite small, you may need to zoom in to read it).