A few years ago, when I was still painting just for fun, had just discovered soft pastels, and was not yet thinking of selling my work, I had a brutal awakening regarding artists’ copyrights. It’s a story about a bully, a photographer who shall remain nameless (I saved the emails, and I will never forget that horrible man and his threats). But because of that experience and previous familiarity with literary copyrights, I educated myself. And you know, he was right. (He’s a horrible excuse for a human being, but he was right.)
Friends of ours had recently been married, had honeymooned in the Maritimes, and I wanted to give them a painting that would recall their trip to the East coast. I had no photos of my own to work from, so I found a beautiful photograph on the Internet of a Nova Scotia village I knew they’d visited, and decided to use it as my reference. I changed the composition very slightly and imagined my own palette for colour since the original photo was in black and white. Before having it framed as a gift for our friends, I got the idea (I can’t recall how or why) to contact the photographer and share my humble tribute to his beautiful work with him, and to let him know that I’d credited his photo. His response was swift, furious and brutal. He ranted about copyright infringement, he threatened legal action, and finally, he demanded that I send him my painting immediately so that he could personally see to its destruction! I felt like he had punched me – hard – in the solar plexus. I didn’t understand – I had given him and his photo full credit! I wasn’t pretending that the image was mine, just the ‘tribute’ painting. That didn’t matter, and it wasn’t the point. Because there was one thing he said that wasn’t entirely malicious: he said that if I’d asked him for permission first (“even without payment”), he would likely have said yes. (Did he mean that? I don’t know.) I wasn’t young, but I was ignorant, although I did know enough to give credit where it was due. And that began my self-education about basic artists’ copyrights.
Simply put, unless you are a student working on your own or in a classroom, and do not intend to sell your work or show it in public, you need to know that the works of visual artists (including photographers, painters, sculptors, etc.) are under copyright (in the same or similar way a writer’s work is copyrighted) and may not be used or reproduced without prior permission of the original artist, and full credit given. And if you ask for but don’t get permission, you just can’t use it. (It’s pretty darn simple: You can’t just take someone else’s artwork and call it yours, whether or not you make changes to it (aka “derivative” art). It is also why juried art shows will not accept student work created in the classroom: the work is directed by an instructor and is not original to the student-artist. And copying or using another artist’s original work or image and calling it yours is the same idea.
The only solution if you want to show and/or sell your art is to create work only from your own imagination and experience (self-evident), or from your own reference photographs (if you use photographs). Even if you choose to use “public domain” images, give credit to the original artists and their image or photo. It’s just a classy thing to do.
This might be taught in art colleges and in university bachelor or master level programs, (I don’t know, because I am basically self-taught), but if it isn’t, it should be. I suspect, but could be entirely wrong, that the majority of artists who copy the works of others to show and sell as their own, are also self-taught, but this is not in any way a comment about talent or skill or ability. (Some of the most talented artists have been self-taught.) It is about the idea that art education, whether or not you are self-taught, shouldn’t stop at just learning skills like basic composition, how to draw or how to mix and apply colour; it should also include learning about basic artists’ copyright law, ethics and the rights and responsibilities of the artist.
Oh, to finish the story about the copyright-infringed photographer: I took the advice of some sympathetic artists at WetCanvas, refused to send my painting to that jerk so he could destroy it, and I never heard from him again. I almost feel sorry for him. His photographs really are stunning, but he’s such a nasty character, really a bully, that I imagine he must be a very unhappy person inside.
Here are a few links if you’d like to know more about Artists’ Copyrights and stuff:
Know Your Copyrights (CARFAC)
Copyright Terminology (Copyright for Visual Artists)
Copyright Law of Canada (Wikipedia)
P.S. I’m still working on my second “Painting a Week”…. it’s coming along, will post ASAP.