CopyRights and Wrongs

Apophysis-by James Brauer

Legal Disclaimer—I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV. On the advice of an attorney who is one, I’m telling you now that I cannot professionally advise anyone on any legal matters. But I can say this; even lawyers are confused by existing copyright laws.

It is up to each individual to learn as much as they can about this issue. There are many links to information on the Internet. I am not responsible for their content; I am only letting you know they exist.

In the United States, ANY artwork or writing is protected by copyright law from the instant of creation, and the rights usually belong to the creator of the work. Exceptions include “Works For Hire” done under contractual agreements which take the copyrights from the creator and give them to the employer. Avoid this sort of thing whenever you can, or at least get good
compensation for the rights you are giving up.

Registering a particular creation with the government makes it possible to collect greater damages when lawsuits are involved, but even unregistered work is still protected by existing copyright law. Placing the copyright symbol along with the artists
name and the publication date helps to inform others that these laws exist, and that you are aware of and actively claiming the protection due to the artist. Copyright laws differ from country to country, and are constantly being updated and changed due to new factors such as the Internet, but it remains true that generally the person who originally created the work holds the right to say who gets to make copies–or not! Enforcing this can require lawyers and lengthy litigation, however. Many arge companies have lawyers specifically to do this kind of litigation for them.

Copyright laws are applicable to big companies and to little ones–and to individuals. Although companies who sell rubberstamps, stencils, and sewing patterns expect them to be used by the purchaser for their personal enjoyment, the user is NOT supposed to make and sell hundreds of items for their personal profit. Some designs are covered under “angel policies” which allows them to be used in small quantities for making handmade items intended for sale. This is stated on the packaging or the information given out by the company. You can also ask for and receive permission to make copies of work–but if you do not have permission to use an image, then to do so violates copyright laws, whether anyone points a finger and catches you or not.

Some works are in Public Domain, meaning the copyrights have expired and they are free for use. Dover Publications maintains a large archive of images in book and cd form which are all available for use by artists at no charge, with up to ten images available for use in any one piece with no further permission needed. (This limit is meant to discourage the printing of books made up solely of these images by other companies. Artists are usually given permission when it is asked to use the images as needed). Clip art collections made good use of these images. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands and collected into groupings, these Dover Pictorial Archives are invaluable resources for artists who want to make use of images for transfers, prints, stamping, backgrounds, collage and all sorts of uses.

Images that come to you through email, magazines, catalogs, on tv or the internet are not “yours” to copy freely. You can cut up a catalog and use it in a decoupage project or collage because no copies were made. But its a violation to make prints of it at the
copy machine–unless you ask and receive permission to do it.

When asking the question “is it ok to make copies and use them” remember that you must be the creator of the image, or have permission (in writing is good!) from the creator, or somebody’s copyrights are not being respected. 

The words and pictures on my web pages are protected by copyright law–and by putting the copyright statement on each page, I am serving notice that I create and own these works, even though I am sharing the information by way of the Internet. It is perfectly acceptable to link to URLs when using the Internet, and many people do this–it is the way the “Web” is strung together, with information leading to other information, all branching off to other points on the “Information Highway”. In fact, many sites are actually lists of links pertaining to the subject at hand. What is NOT acceptable is to present someone else’s words or pictures and state outright or give the impression that they are yours. This is stealing, plain and simple. When artwork is used in a book, magazine, web page or CD it is important to credit the artist, and to have that artist’s permission in the first place—important in legal AND ethical terms.

No reputable publication knowingly violates copyrights–but there are some small companies who do so knowing full well that they do not have permission. One company I’ve seen uses pictures in their publications with no credits given to the real artists, and infer that the works are created by the “author” of their stolen compilations. Most are taken from web sites without permission. These violating works are then peddled on e-Bay, Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, and in many other venues. Watch out for those who want to sell you “secrets” that are available freely on the Internet elsewhere.

This despicable practice on the part of a very few has led some polymer clay teachers to re-think the idea of putting up tutorials or lessons of any kind, lest their work be pilfered by the unscrupulous (and presented poorly as well!) I choose to continue to share information, but I also put my name and copyright notice more prominently on every page. I strive to improve my work, and to share what I have learned–but I appreciate being credited for doing so. I urge all who read this to be more aware of copyrights, and to respect the work that goes into being creative. It is a sad fact that it is easier to steal something than it is to create it—but the rewards for creativity go far beyond the dollars that a thief will gain, and “getting away with something” for a while does not make it ethically  right, nor does it protect wrongdoers in the long run from the consequences of their actions.

But there’s more to this argument than just legalities of copyright….there is ongoing discussion among many artists (and musicians too) about the difference between “copying” and “influences”. When is it a rip off and when is it an inspiration?

Although the courts continue to define the legal terms, it is an ethical decision as well, and one that starts within the artist. While the statement “There’s nothing new under the sun” has a certain truth to it, it is also true that each artist can interpret the same scene in a different way. That’s why there is room for more than one painted still-life, more than one landscape, more than one Mother and Child portrait, and more than one statue of A Guy On A Horse. You’ll find evidence of this on any museum’s walls.

Marcel Duchamp said “Art is whatever an Artist says it is” and it is each artist’s right and responsibility to take all sensory input available and distill it into a unique and personal vision, shared by way of their chosen media interpretation. Try do do it with grace, and respect the sources of your inspirations.

Library of Congress United States Copyright Office