Copyright and the Artist in a Digital Age

Let’s be honest, copyright is a complete mess. There are differences in law from country to country and, in a day when putting an image on Facebook or your blog makes it vulnerable to attack under any copyright jurisdiction in the world, the risks are considerable.

The largest problem for artists is that techniques and approaches that they have grown up with do not apply in the digital. So I can legally take a magazine, cut out a photo and glue it onto a canvas to make a physical collage, but if I copy the same image off the magazine’s website and paste it into Photoshop I have breached copyright if I publish the result. It makes no sense, but unfortunately that is not a defence under the law.

Until the law catches up with the realities of the modern world we all need to be careful.

So what do I do when I need source images that I do not have in my own image library? Well, I do one of three things:

  • Buy them from a stock library, like iStockPhoto for a few dollars
  • Go out and shoot them myself
  • Google for open source or public domain images

My own image library is, of course, large. But it doesn’t cover everything. I have supplemented that with a number of collections of images on CD and DVD that I have bought the right to use. But what about when I can’t find what I want there either?

My preferred solution is iStockPhoto and the other micro stock libraries. I know I have the right to use and I have supported another artist in their activities. Everyone wins. This is the approach I use in designing book covers and also occasionally in artwork, though in my own artwork I prefer the integrity of using all my own imagery if at all possible.

Googling for open source, free or public domain images can be tricky. When you Google, what Google is doing is looking for pages where all those words occur. That means the words public and domain may occur on a page but not mean that the images are explicitly released into the public domain. To stand a better chance you need to enclose the phrases in quotes, as in “public domain’ or “open source” so that Google will only return pages where these expressions occur as is. Still what you then need to do is to then check the page the image occurs on to see if there is an explicit statement that the images are public domain.

Many government agencies make images available for use, such as US Government agencies like NASA. But you should always check the terms and conditions of use on the websites. They will be there somewhere.

In education it is common to take a more relaxed view over copyright when allowing students to experiment and develop experience and techniques. Note that while there are general exemptions under copyright law for educational uses, it is a grey area when it comes to then putting such images up on the Internet, which is effectively publishing. So students should be careful about publishing assignment work to Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc. While it may be acceptable to a teacher for a particular purpose, like a skill building exercise, that does not make it legal.

Photographers protect their work in many ways. There are encoding techniques that embed within an image traceable information that is capable for surviving extensive cropping and modification in Photoshop. This is a very effective way of identifying images on the net that have incorporated your work. Many professional photographers do this and it makes sense when your living is your images.

There is also the danger of urban myths. The main one relevant here is the idea that you can use a certain percentage of an image. This is just plain wrong. There is no percentage use figure in copyright law regarding images.

A complication is that copyright laws are constantly changing. Not only is there the general copyright law, which differs from country to country although there is general agreement on some aspects, as agreed by international conventions. Individual countries are also active with special legislation that covers certain areas of copyright. The US in particular is one country that has special digital laws and one where new laws are being proposed frequently in response to lobbying be areas of industry with particular interests.

All the above makes it a nightmare for digital artists. My advice is to be very conservative.

As is obvious, I am not a lawyer and this article does not constitute or substitute for legal advise. Seek the advice of a lawyer over your particular circumstances.

 

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