Thursday, October 23, 2014

How To Use Photo Reference in Making Artwork So It's Not Copyright Infringement (ie., Really General Rules of Thumb)

Every artist learns how to draw by copying photographs, other people's drawings and by drawing from real life. So at what point is it no longer learning from and when is it flat out copyright infringement? The simplest and most obvious difference lies once an artist starts selling their work.

Say you want to draw or paint a piece you want to sell at a show, or in a store, at a gallery, or even privately to another person. What's a good guideline?

Super Basic Rules of Thumb on How to Use Photo Reference For Art:

• When you take the photograph yourself to draw the picture yourself, you can copy your own photo exactly.

• It's "Reference" when you hire a model to pose for you, they sign a consent form and they allow you take photographs of them to use in your work.
• It's "Reference" when you use someone else's photograph in order to get the details of a type of object or person correct (like the folds of a garment, the finish on a cabinet, the slope of a car roof, etc.,) but you must change actual final pose/final image of the object or figure itself in your own piece. Copying the overall image exactly is not allowed.

• It's copyright infringement when you use someone else's photograph and copy it exactly in your own drawing and sell it as your own work. The image in the photo is actually the photographer's, not your own, even if and when you draw a new and separate picture from it yourself. (Dunno how Lichtenstein got away with it pretending his comics panels swipes were "fine art" since his painted "ink lines" missed the point of the beauty of inking ... but I digress!)

• It's copyright infringement when you take someone else's trademarked character(s) or celebrity likeness, draw it and sell it as your own work. Here's where it gets hairy ... because you'd think nobody would care if you painted favorite characters in some little kid's bedroom, but some companies are really picky.

The weird and extremely rare exception for this I've noticed, falls within the comic book industry, where comic book artists at comic book conventions sell drawings of major comic book characters and they don't pay the companies a cut for the privilege. This is probably because the presumption is that the love of the fan, love of the artists and the resulting artwork all inspires and reinforces support of the comic book industry itself, which is super-cool and seems to have worked for decades.

A more technical description of avoiding copyright infringement is available at the very fine Graphic Artist Guild website, and there you can even get a free PDF booklet on the subject.

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