Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out

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Can you copy art and sell a painting of a painting? What about if the artist is no longer alive? What about copying a picture online? Even though this sounds like an ethical dilemma, it’s also a legal one. This article will cover the issues surrounding copying other people’s artwork, as well as how to protect your own work from being copied by others.

It is legal to copy anything. It is illegal to sell, publicize and publish a copy of an artwork unless you have prior permission from the copyright owner. It is also illegal to publish and sell an artwork that’s substantially similar to another original work of art. Copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator at which point it enters the public domain.

Copying other people’s art and photography is a minefield, so let’s go over the common issues one-by-one.

Is it Illegal to Copy Other People’s Art?

No, it’s not illegal, you can copy other people’s art. However, it is illegal to present your work as being original. You should attribute your art as having been copied from another person’s work of art. On no account have you got permission to copy the signature. That’s a fraud, plain and simple.

It all becomes murky when the copy is substantially similar to another artist’s work. Plagiarism is semi-legal. How do you prove a substantial difference? Where is the dividing line between being ripped-off and inspiration?

Ultimately only the law courts can determine the degree that you can appropriate other people’s imagery. Andy Warhol got away with it and it made him millions.

Elizabeth Taylor by Andy Warhol original art or rip-off?
Art or Rip-Off?

It also becomes complicated should you want to sell your painting of a painting. A single private sale can be acceptable, that’s an ethical issue, but what if you painted the same picture over and over again? That’s a legal one.

There is a danger that your paintings could undermine the value of the original work you’ve copied and in such cases, the original artist could theoretically, claim damages against you.

All imagery is owned by the creator, if they can prove it. That includes photography. You cannot assume that because an image is online that you have any permission to use it.

Having no watermark or copyright symbol does not make the image open-source. All artists retain the rights to their own work.

Copyrights last for a lifetime plus 70 years unless those rights are sold.

There is the provision for copying art under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976. Permission is granted for “fair use” in areas such as teaching, commentary, criticism, news, research, and so on.

Is It Ever Acceptable to Copy Other People’s Art?

There are times when it is perfectly appropriate to copy another artist’s work. The obvious reason that springs to mind is when you are trying to learn how to draw and paint.

How does a student learn if not from their peers and masters? We all learn by copying the artists we love. I know I certainly did.

Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad?

It is perfectly valid to copy an artwork with the intention of learning. The same copied painting hung in a gallery, physically or online, ceases to be for education and is in breach of copyright.

Any artwork over a certain age is in the public domain. That means you must ascertain when the creator died and add 70 years. Beyond that time there are no legal repercussions to worry about.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that everything over 70 years old is fine. The creator’s estate still owns the copyright. If a painter died in 1970 the work is protected until 2040.

You can copy an old master if you want to, or an old photo for that matter. Plenty of art students sit down in galleries and sketch the paintings.

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer in the Rijksmusuem
‘The Milkmaid’ by Johannes Vermeer

It’s also interesting to note that it’s not uncommon for artists in the same genre, or from the same time period, to copy each other. Artists have always done that.

And different cultures have different views about copying art. Some cultures regard it as more of a violation than others. Anyone traveling through Asia will realize that copying is not frowned upon with the same degree of concern as it is in the west.

Can You Copy Art and Sell it?

Anyone can approach the owner of a piece of art and ask permission to reproduce it. The artist might allow you a one-time-only usage of their image in exchange for money or exposure. They might not have any objections at all. If they aren’t professionals themselves they might even be pleased.

Professional artists will want some form of payment and that’s usually a royalty from licensing the work for a specific purpose. This is sometimes handled by the artist themselves or more often by their agents.

If you are unlucky and the artist has no wish for their work to be used, move on and find another source.

Problems arise when the intentions are to deceive. If you don’t have permission, it’s stealing. It’s not a tribute or an inspiration, and neither is it a compliment. It is taking something from another person, you otherwise could not, or would not, create yourself.

Copying a work with the intention of parodying is also an area that you might have to defend. You would have to argue ‘fair use’.

But What if You Only Copy Part of an Image?

Cherry-picking parts of an image and using them without permission is a grey area. If the copy forms a substantial part of the original it’s a copyright infringement but if it constitutes a minor part of the original image, then it’s less clear.

It depends on the intention, whether there is any commercial gain from the use and if the ‘acquired’ section is obviously recognizable.

I draw mostly wildlife from my own photos and sometimes the image is out of focus, cropped badly or needs adjusting in some way. I have the bulk of the information but I need some missing details.

Further Reading: How to Start Drawing Wildlife

What am I to do? Go back into the field or visit a zoo just to take another photo of an animal’s foot or ear? Of course not. I find an image online and use it.

I do something similar if, on occasion, I need to add some authentic foliage.

I can’t see anything wrong with very minor alterations done this way.

Can You Copy a Picture of a Celebrity and Sell It?

No, in general, you can’t just draw or paint a celebrity and sell it. There are two reasons why this might backfire.

A living celebrity is a brand and their image is protected. You will need a model release to have any rights. This is not going to be offered for free.

Even if you take your own photos, you cannot use a celebrity image for commercial purposes.

If the celebrity has died and you wish to use an old image, the photographer or their estate, still has copyright so you will still need permission to use it.

The only way you might get away with using a celebrity is to change the image beyond recognition from the original photo. Andy Warhol used that defense. He got away with it in his lifetime but interestingly, his foundation lost its appeal against Lynn Goldsmith for stealing her image of Prince.

Can You Copy An Image For a Tattoo?

It is considered bad practice to tattoo another artist’s work without seeking permission. It is potentially a breach of copyright if the artist can prove that the tattoo has devalued his/her design and denied them the profits they would otherwise have earned.

Naturally, most artists are not in the position to go to law and few would want to. In essence, it’s a matter of integrity. Ethically a tattooist should respect the rights of another artist and most do. The remainder can get away with copying work by changing the image sufficiently to claim it as their own.

I’ve met many people over the years who’ve presented themselves with one of my images on their bodies, with or without my consent. Personally, I don’t really care, it doesn’t upset me. I’m more interested in the quality of the work and I’ve seen some shockers. There are a lot of bad tattooists out there.

Superior male lion looking down his nose pencil drawing
My Most Stolen Image!

The most memorable encounter I had was with a Korean guy who stopped in his tracks when he noticed my portrait of a lion. He rolled up his sleeve and there it was. He’d had it tattooed back in the Far East and by pure coincidence, passed by me, the very artist who created it, half a world away. He was amazed and so happy he bought the print as well.

Can You Copy and Sell Disney Characters?

You cannot copy and sell any Disney images without permission. Disney has been quite strict in the past about its copyrights and trademark.

That goes for Marvel Comics and Star Wars and every other fantasy creation. You have no right to reproduce the works or use derivatives.

You can’t copy the characters they’ve drawn but you can use some of the subjects they’ve used. Many of the most famous Disney characters are based on works long out of copyright. You are free to interpret them in your own way or even copy the old illustrations.

For example:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Peter Pan
  • Robin Hood
  • The Jungle Book
  • Snow White
  • To name but a few. The list goes on.

Can You Copy Somone’s Art Style?

Originality is rare, most artists have learned their craft by trying to copy the style of other artists. But here’s the thing, you may start out by copying the other artist’s style, but very soon your own style develops.

There is no getting around the simple fact that tutors teach their knowledge and techniques in their own way and their students will follow their instructions. The results will inevitably be a pastiche.

You can’t just adopt their style. Your efforts would be second best, forever the poor relation, like a second-rate tribute band.

Further Reading: How to Find Your Own Art Style

Copying a style is only a springboard towards finding your own way of doing things. We all have our own unique styles and we change directions as we’re influenced by others. As we experiment we move on.

I remember being accused of copying another artist when I first started to sell my drawings. I understood that there were similarities between mine and another well-known artist because we both drew animals but it still hurt when all my hard work was dismissed so casually.

It seems that some critics confuse using the same medium as style. What can you say? We used different techniques entirely but what if we didn’t? What if we had a similar approach, can you really ‘own’ a technique? I don’t think so.

Some artists are so unique no one can copy their style, but most people just draw and paint to the best of their abilities. Copying another artist is, in the end, a fool’s errand.

How to Protect Your Artwork From Being Copied

If you’re a creative person, either in business or just for fun, then chances are that at some point someone has copied your work.

How do you stop your images being stolen? What should you do if someone steals your images?

Watermark each image, keep records and provenance. Put your copyright, name and date somewhere on the original artwork, send a copy to yourself by registered mail and leave it unopened as proof. Do a reverse image search for your art, contact the owner and request that the image is removed or ask for payment.

One way to deter casual theft is to disable the right-click ‘save as’ function. You can do this by adding code to your site or using a plugin.

I don’t go this far. If someone wants to steal the image they’ll take a screenshot anyway, and if someone has a reasonable reason for wanting to save your image, it stops them.

Reputable sites will remove stolen images if you can prove their provenance but otherwise it’s the Wild West out there and there is very little you can do about it.

Most artists are in no position to use the courts. The best you can do is threaten legal action and that is an empty threat, especially if the theft is foreign.

Do Artists Need to Copyright Their Artwork?

Copyright for artists is a confusing topic. Should I copyright my work? Do I have to register with the government? Will that stop someone from stealing it?

Artists are often told they should copyright their work, but is this true and if so how? This leads to confusion and sometimes inaction.

I’ll try to help and make it simple enough to understand.

Works of art are automatically assigned copyright the moment they come into existence. You are not required to register your art and there is no legal obligation to do so.

It is wise however to keep records . Put the symbol © with your name and the year somewhere on the artwork.

The symbol © indicates that this work is copyrighted by its owner, who has exclusive rights to reproduce it, distribute copies of it, create derivative works from it (such as translations or abridgments), perform versions of it in public.

Citizens of the US can also register the copyright of their artwork with the Copyright Office to protect against infringement.

Registration is not required for protection under US law, although registration does offer additional benefits such as providing prima facie evidence that you are the owner of a copyright and can help you recover damages in infringement cases. There are fees, currently $35 per single piece.

There is no government registration service in the UK. Instead, you can send a copy to yourself using certified mail and/or send another to a solicitor for a safe deposit.

Should You Add a Watermark to an Online Artwork?

Many people do not understand the importance of protecting their intellectual property. It is important to protect your work from being used by others, but it can be difficult to get this idea across.

The Internet is full of people who will take your work without asking permission and use it for their own purposes. These people don’t care about copyright laws and can cause serious problems for you if they use your pictures in an inappropriate way.

Adding a watermark to all of the images on your website is one solution. This should help remind people that they cannot simply take pictures from the web and use them as their own.

The best way to add a watermark to a file is to use a photo editor. I use Photoshop but there are free photo editors online. Try using a free online website like PicMonkey, Pixlr, or Canva to add a watermark.

Don’t get paranoid and plaster a huge copyright symbol over the image. Remember, if your watermark is too large and obtrusive it can detract from the work.

Don’t go over the top

Place it in an unobtrusive place so that people know it’s your work without completely taking away from the picture.

I like to add my copyright symbol and name in the bottom right corner of my image. I know it can be cropped but anyone who is determined to steal your work will do it anyway.

I think of it as a deterrent for thoughtless theft.

You can also go the other way and discretely add your name to the image in tiny secret places. Thieves are looking for the main watermark and won’t think of looking for hidden words within the image.

How Large Should The Image File be Online?

Never upload a large file online if you don’t want it to be copied.

It’s a no-brainer that people will take your work if they see the original on your computer screen. There are a few ways of circumventing this, but for now let’s focus on file size and how important it is not to upload large files online in order to avoid thieves from copying.

Ideally your image should be no more than 1200px wide on the web.

Most art online will fall below those dimensions. Instagram images, for instance, are limited to 1080×1080 pixels. Pinterest posts are larger at 1500L x 1000W pixels but very few people fill their whole pins with standalone images.

Small files can look great online but when they’re printed out, they lose quality. Although there is software that can enlarge files they can’t magically restore small Jpg files at 72 DPI to anything like print quality needed.

You are more likely to have your art stolen and repurposed for the web or blatantly plagiarized and ripped off.

I saw one of my images printed on a T-shirt that a guy was wearing in the street. Someone must’ve scanned one of my prints and thought that by adding something to the image it made it their own. Bloody cheek.

How to Find Your Images Anywhere Online

If you have ever wondered if someone is using your images there is a way to find out

Reverse image search engines will allow you to find out what the plant is called and who might be using your image without permission.

Use reverse image search engines like Google’s Reverse Image Search or TinEye to identify the culprits!

Google’s Reverse Image Search engine has a very detailed and accurate system for searching specific areas on the internet. TinEye is also reliable but it doesn’t have as many images in its database as Google.

Go to Google Images and click the camera icon. In the dialog box add a URL or upload an image. Hit ‘Search by Image’.

To search using TinEye, you need the URL of a JPEG file or JPG image on the internet. You can also upload an image from your computer into TinEye’s website and then use its reverse-image search engine function to identify other images that are identical or very similar in content.

TinEye is also great because it specifically searches images that have been downloaded from websites so if someone has uploaded your work without permission to a social media site TinEye will be able to find it.

What to Do When Someone Copies Your Art Online

So you find a site using your images without permission what do you about it?

If someone steals your art: a blunderbuss pistol
Best not to get too upset

One solution is to do nothing much. If the site is not using your work to make money or profit, but instead has just used it for personal use, what’s the point? You can always ask them to credit you and add a link, that’s fair.

Another option is to contact them and ask that they take down the image(s). If they comply, then you can consider this a successful resolution of the situation.

You can also ask for a fee or royalties if they wish to licence the image.

If that doesn’t work try getting in contact with their web hosting company. Most will remove infringing content when they are notified by the copyright holder.

If your art has appeared on a 3rd party platform like a Print-on-Demand company contact them and they will most likely remove the infringing work.

If you are lucky enough to have a large fan base you might be able to rally others to your cause and create so much fuss online that the thief backdowns and slinks back into their cyber snake pit.

If that doesn’t work and you want to pursue legal action. Send a cease and desist letter, or send a DMCA takedown notice.

If all else fails, you can file a copyright infringement lawsuit on your artwork to recover damages such as lost profits or royalties when it was used without permission.

Let’s be real though, are you ever going to go that far?

When all is said and done, is it worth getting stressed and ill health? Of course not, so let it go.

Conclusion

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to protect your artwork from being copied.

You can use watermarks, copyright tags and reduce the image sizes. You can find your ‘borrowed’ images online and most people will take them down without a fuss.

Most people aren’t rogues but plenty of people are thoughtless. Don’t get upset.

I hope this guide has been helpful in showing you some different ways you can keep your work safe online.


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