Copyright law is horribly complicated, and varies from country to country. But here are some answers to basic questions you may have:
Who owns the copyright to my painting?
You do… even after it is sold! When you create something unique you automatically own the ‘intellectual copyright’ to it. You can sell your copyright (don’t) or licence it for a set amount of time. Basically this all means that even after you have sold a painting you can produce prints and cards etc for as long as you wish. The person buying your artwork owns the original piece not the copyright.
The exception to this rule is if you are commissioned to make something, in most cases the copyright is owned by the person who commissioned you, unless you negotiate this back as part of the initial agreement.
Can I use photos from magazines and books to make a painting from?
Not if you plan to sell the result. If you use a photo/painting from a magazine then the photographer/artist (or whoever commissioned them) owns the copyright. However you can use these for personal study (i.e. not for sale) and as source material. If you just copy the picture as it is, you break copyright law, and are considered to be profiting from someone else’s work.
Example 1 breaks copyright law:
You find a photo of a black and white wading bird on a beach with cliffs on the left, and a blue boat in the background. You make a fairly accurate painting of it, boat, cliffs, the lot, and put it up for sale.
Why? Because if this sells then it is down to the photographer’s skill in composition and colour: you just copied it. In other words you are considered to be profiting from his artistic ability.
Example 2 is fine:
You find the picture of the wading bird, and decide to put him in a group. Using other photos of similar birds you make a composition with birds in the foreground. You decide not to use the cliffs, but instead go for a flat horizon with a sunset. You like the boat, but bring it further forwards, and change it to yellow to tone in with the sunset.
Why? Because the original image is now only a small part of the new piece, you used it as source material, but the overall image is your own.
What if I use a photo supplied in an art class?
Always ask the teacher’s permission before putting work up for sale based on class or course source photos. In my own class I am happy for students to use my photos, but a small proportion of them are not taken by me, are donated by students or are from publications.
So it is completely safe to use my own photos?
If you took the photo yourself you automatically own the image copyright. BUT in the case of things like Ford Cars, Marks and Spencer shop fronts, etc it is possible that you can be considered to be making money from someone else’s brand, by including these in your painting! In reality you will probably only fall foul of this if you try to produce merchandise ie. prints, postcards or t-shirts. This is not just speculation; products with artwork like this are regularly removed from selling websites. I ran into trouble when I used the word Twilight in a painting title. Items with the word ‘twilight’ in the title and internet tags were removed after complaints by the company making the teen vampire movies! Providing brands and products are a small part of your picture, and you are only selling an original painting, you should be fine.
Can I copy famous brands like Disney?
Don’t even think about it, big companies like this have whole branches of their companies just searching for and suing people who infringe their copyright, besides it is both illegal and immoral to make financial gain from someone else’s intellectual copyright. If you can’t come up with something original then you should reconsider why you are making art in the first place.
Can I sell paintings of celebrities and politicians?
The law on this varies from country to country. In America for example they have laws which allow ‘parody’ of politicians, it is seen as a freedom of speech. Personally if the only way I could make money was to paint straight copies of Marilyn Monroe photos I would have to examine my conscience; there is art and then there is copying stuff.
Can I photograph strangers to use in paintings?
In the case of people good manners dictate that you should ask permission of people you photograph before snapping them or selling paintings of them. As for photographing children, the latest military aircraft etc this can get you in big trouble. If you want to paint these things you need to make personal contacts and get permission in order that your intentions are not misconstrued!
Can I copy a work of art or a photo and enter it into an art competitions?
Some competitions allow copies of other artists work as long as you put ‘After a work by…’ or ‘Copy of a painting by…’ in the title. Read the rules carefully first.
How can I put my work on the internet without risking it being taken?
A lot of rubbish is talked about this; registering your work won’t help, criminals don’t care. There is only one way to avoid having your work stolen and that is to never show it to anyone ever or put it online; keep it in a folder under your bed and it should be pretty safe. Realistically your best bet is to not upload high definition copies of your work online, so that if it is taken it can’t be used for much or enlarged to any good standard.
Help I found someone using my images without permission, what do I do?
If you find your work has been used without permission contact the owner of the website or publication immediately and demand it is removed or payment is made to you for its use. I am afraid if you find it on a far eastern site then there is not much you can do, they care little for our copyright laws. I personally have found my work used without permission to sell painting guides on eBay, I simply contacted the site and after some form filling the seller had his account deleted. It isn’t just small time law breakers either, recently several large companies including national newspapers, chain stores and television channels have been caught using images and photos without permission so be vigilant. The best thing is to make a big fuss, name and shame on social media. When a high street chain ripped off the original jewellery of an independent designer users on the internet harassed them until it made national news!
Surely I can put a copyright logo across the picture to stop it being used?
Using a graphics program to put a big copyright logo over the top of your work (like the one at the top of the page) is an excellent way to irritate viewers and avoid sales. Besides a 12 year old with a working knowledge of photoshop can remove a logo without too much trouble.
"BUT SURELY NO ONE WILL FIND OUT?"
The internet has changed everything now, the chances of someone finding out that you have infringed their copyright is massively increased. Artists and photographers are taking advantage of increasingly specialized search programs designed to find out if their images are being used. Just because you don’t post your painting on the internet doesn’t mean the person who bought it won’t. Err on the side of caution and all will be well.
If you have painted a stunning picture that you think infringes copyright, keep it for your own personal display, or give it to a family member as a gift, just don’t put it up for sale.