Copyright Issues in Using Reference Photos and Pictures From Books

Today, we are going to sidetrack away from the usual oil painting techniques and instructions. Instead, I am going to talk about some legal issues that might be of concern to you especially if your decide to sell your oil painting creations.

Every artist knows what it’s like to try to draw something without any tools for reference. It’s not easy.

That’s why when live models and other subjects can’t be found; photographs and other pictures come in handy.

Here’s the problem: Copyrights. If you replicate a photo or picture that is copyrighted in your painting, you can get into some trouble.

The first question that pops into many minds is this: How long does a copyright last? This depends largely on where you live and on when the copyright was taken out.

Some countries have no copyright laws at all, although this is very rare. It is common for copyrights to last for up to 70 years after the death of the artist, and in some countries, even 80 years. It’s best to research this for yourself on the internet before making any presumptions.

Some copyrights are extended beyond the normal length of time after death, as companies or families may extend copyrights themselves. Never assume that something is safe to use just because the artist has been dead for 100 years – always do your research and be certain rather than sorry.

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Many artists will happily give you permission to use their photos, while others may ask for a fee. The only way to find out is to ask! If they’re still alive, then you need express permission from the photographer for a photo to be used in its entirety. Make sure to get this permission in writing, and always keep proof of the legitimacy of this written permission.

It is of utmost importance to know when you need permission to use photographs and pictures. There is a big difference between using a photo for reference, and outright copying it. Photos for reference are usually given for inspiration and information.

For example, the characteristic shape of a flower or tree, the colors of a bird’s feathers, the general mood created by colors and shadows in a photo that you want to convey in a painting. If somebody would say that your painting looks like it’s based on a photo, then you know that it’s derivative (like copying) and not reference use of the photo.

If you don’t know if something is copyrighted, then most copyright offices across the world will do a search for you, for a fee.

You don’t always need to worry about copyrights – if you’re using a photo to create an abstract, for example, then unless you want to make public the fact that you based your painting on somebody else’s work, it most likely won’t be obvious enough to have to bother with copyright issues.

Also, if your painting is going to be hung in your home, i.e. if it’s not going to be seen by the public; then although it is still illegal to copy something that is copyrighted, the chances are that you won’t run into any trouble with it – just don’t invite a law official who has a personal vendetta against copyright offenders into your home.

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