A Short Note on Copyright

August 7, 2011
First, let me say I am not an expert on copyright issues. And, it is with some reservation that I write this post, but I am writing it to clarify that I maintain copyright of an image. For some, I think the issue of copyright is a bit confusing, and, for others, it is just not on their radar. Unless specifically specified in the creators’ terms of use, you shouldn’t use their work in any way without permission or without purchasing rights to use it.

Recently, a friend asked me to do a quick design for a t-shirt to benefit a family who tragically lost their barn, their livelihood, and 23 treasured horses. We talked about using a piece of art I designed based on a photo of one of my horses and my pony that I sell through SpoonFlower, CafePress and Zazzle. While, I maintain my copyright of this image, I was more than happy to donate the use of it to benefit this family. Ultimately, a different piece was used for the t-shirt, but not before the image I created was pulled from the internet by a third party and re-purposed without permission.

The problem is, this is not a piece of royalty-free, free-for-use, or public domain clipart. I immediately pulled the image down from the location from which it was copied and sent an email to my friend as to the reasons why. This morning, however, I received a local horse magazine pdf via email that included the image. I don’t begrudge the owner of the local magazine, as she is just showing support for this devastated family. I actually have no real objection to her printing it in the issue dedicated to them. After all, the intended use was in support of the family.

I do however feel that both pieces of art included in the pdf should have included artist attribution and/or copyright notice if appropriate, especially since my original piece included a copyright notice (which can’t be read in the document). The issue is how other people may use it as they did when pulling it from the original internet location.

Now, certainly, this is not Van Gogh, but it is special to me as it is based on an image of my equine friends, and it is one of my best sellers, so I’m a little protective of it, though I am happy that people like it enough to use it 🙂  I suppose that’s why it sells!

I’ve seen numerous unauthorized uses of copyrighted images over the years. And, while it is understandable that people don’t understand image terms of use since much of it is buried in fine print, essentially the long and short of it is that any image out there on the internet or in print may be copyright protected. It doesn’t matter whether it is a photograph, a digital artwork, or pen and ink.

Yes, there are certain images that are public domain and certain images that have been released for free use by others. In fact, to my understanding, Kristy appropriately used these free horse vectors to create her image.

Even purchasing rights to an image has pitfalls. Take a look at this discussion at SitePoint regarding Getty Images. I don’t know all the ups and downs of the Getty Image tale, but even purchasing an image, template, or artwork for use may not be as clear cut as we would like it. And, proving you purchased rights? Make sure you keep your receipt – for years… Admittedly, if your receipt is in email form, it may be easy to lose if you switch computers or have a crash. Taking my own advise, I’ll be printing receipts for any images I purchase for use in web design as a printed document for backup.

What about free images distributed on the net? Well, sometimes they aren’t free. If you read the fine print, you may find that they are free for personal use but commercial use requires authorization or payment. Sometimes the definition of “commercial” is very narrow, too. Let’s say you run a “personal” blog. But, on that personal blog, you have a few ads that net a little bit of money here and there. By a narrow definition, your blog is commercial.

Basically, my message is this: be sure you have the appropriate rights or permissions to use copyrighted images before using them.