Visual Artists: Stand Up for Copyright

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Can you spot the real Mona Lisa?

Many artists are unaware, as I was when was first starting to sell my work, about the fair use of copyrighted images. You don’t want someone using your work, which takes several hours or days or months to make, without getting paid. The same holds true for the photographer who took the original image you might be copying. However, we do want to get our name and work out there and shared and reposted. When I post from a source, I feel it is important to give the creator or author credit. And I would expect the same.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  However, it’s often difficult to find the original source.  So, finding attribution is a huge problem with the internet.

If you want to copy an image and use it for commercial purposes, you need to be aware of copyright infringement and copyright laws.  Most images are not free, and that means you should not use them without paying the author or artist a fee.  However, if you are making a parody using a public figure, you are creating a new piece of art, according to an article on The Law Tog.   Also worth reading: The Copyright Laws site gives an easy-to-understand summary of copyright laws and how to legally use images.  

“Safe search” your sources

Good stock photos are not only technically well shot, they also exhibit what qualifies as art–a great idea, an interesting subject, excellent composition. Using these images means you must buy them or ask the photographer or copyright holder if you can use them in your art. Several stock photo sites will let you use images for a reasonable price.

However, you can still find some great copyright-free images to use as reference. In the Google Chrome browser, click on Images. Just under the search bar, click Tools. Under that a bar of options will appear. Check usage rights. A variety of usage rights appear. Adjust your search for “images labeled for reuse” or “images labeled for reuse with modification.”

You’ll find an easy-to-search database of photography to work from at Pixabay. Some photographers request attribution. I copy and paste the URL in my notebook, so that in case I need to write about my work, I can give credit to my sources. Note that many photos link to other stock photo sites, where you would need to purchase the photo or a subscription. For a small fee, you get some great work and the photographer gets paid a little, too. is the “PICRYL is the largest search engine for public domain images, documents, music, and videos” curated and run by the GetArchive publishing platform.
There I searched and found great reference that I could freely use (not directly copy).  It links to many collections, including  the Metropolitan Museum of Art which recently made their works available to the public to freely use via a Creative Commons license. If you are serious about your art, it behooves you to visit and study great artworks as well, and even copy them…but don’t misrepresent your copies as your originals. If you do reinterpret a famous work, you can always provide attribution by stating “In the style of [artist’s name]” or “after [work title], [year], [artist’s name].”

Protecting your work

If you sell your art or graphic designs, you want to protect your copyright. First, always be sure to put your signature or imprint on the work, far enough from the border so that it won’t get cropped if you resize the work (which I’ve omitted doing many times!). When selling work through an online marketplace, I’ve seen artists and photographers add a statement of copyright to each description, or add a watermark on the image. Stock photo houses use watermarks, and for good reason. Additionally, if you suspect your work has been used without your consent, Pixsy is a site that checks where your images are being used.