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As a writer, how would you feel if someone stole your work and used it for self-promotion or to make money for themselves?

If you're like me, you'd be furious.

In my four decades working as a professional illustrator, photographer, and designer, that's the sort of stuff that happens to me and my colleagues all the time. Every time we post to the internet a custom image created by us, we risk having that image stolen and used by someone without our permission.

It's aggravating.

Most of the time the person doing the stealing does so out of ignorance, not knowing the implications of what they've done.

While I'm not a lawyer and this isn't legal advice, I AM a creator of visual content with an interest and a stake in promoting proper use of mine and others' intellectual property. This short article is an attempt to put my meager knowledge to good use in order to help fellow writers navigate these sometimes confusing waters.

Keeping It Simple

This topic – copyright – can get complicated very fast, so let's start with a real simple rule:

If you didn't create the image, you can't use it without permission of the creator.

That's pretty basic, and a good rule to go by for all of us. Normally this applies to any image that isn't yours that you may find in a general internet search. If it's not specifically noted that the image is free to use, you should assume it isn't.

Public Domain

The big exception to the above rule is for images designated as Public Domain. These are images in which the copyright has lapsed or been surrendered by the original creator. There are wrinkles to public domain images, and if you're interested here is an article that goes into it in some depth.

Additionally, see the end of this article for a list of sites featuring public domain imagery.

Royalty-Free is Not (Always) Free

There is some confusion as to the meaning of "Royalty-Free". Some image sites use it in the sense that "All our images are free to download and use". But this is, technically, NOT the traditional meaning of Royalty-Free, and anyone looking for images should be aware of the difference, because in many cases there are still costs involved in using Royalty-Free images.

Many image creators charge a variable fee, or royalty. The fee may depend on the number of times the image will be used, or a set length of time it may be used. The royalty is determined by whatever criteria the creator wishes. Sometimes the royalty is based on the number of printed brochures that use the image; the number of digital impressions in a social media campaign; the size the image will appear in an ad; or whatever else the creator decides. The thing to understand is that the user is paying for each specific usage right, and may pay more than once.

If royalties are essentially a Pay Per Play model of usage rights, then Royalty-Free is a Pay To Play model. In other words, Royalty-Free generally means there are no royalties charged, instead the creator may charge a one-time fee for the use of the image. Once the fee is paid, the purchaser is then free to use it as often as they wish, within the terms of the purchase agreement. Most stock art sites (like iStockPhoto, Shutterstock and others) charge for royalty-free images.

So royalty-free is not always "free". Before assuming the images are completely free to use, be sure to look for clear, unambiguous statements along the lines of "Our images are completely free to download and use", or something similar.

Watermarked images

Many creators, in an effort to protect their copyright, will include a watermark in their image. This is usually a transparent or "ghosted" image, text, icon or logo that partially obscures the image. This doesn't always prevent the image from being stolen and used illegally, but it does make such actions more difficult to accomplish and often easier to spot.

Use of a watermarked image is usually taken as a clear sign of copyright infringement. You should never use such an image. This is the copyright equivalent of a cartoon character tip-toeing in prison stripes and a black mask while holding a bag with dollar signs on it. It marks you as a thief.

If the image is licensed legitimately, the creator will provide you with non-watermarked images to use.

Fair Use

Sometimes you can use a copyrighted image if it's done for Fair Use. For us writers, fair use may come into play if we are critiquing a copyrighted work. Book reviews, movie and art critiques can often fall under a fair use. Parody is also a valid form of fair use as are memes. For those interested, here is an article on fair use.

Boromir-BORE-DOR.jpg

Yep. This is a meme that is covered under fair use.

Free Images Await!

Do not despair, fair writer! There exist sites where you can find images in which the creators have surrendered some or all usage rights. It's important to read the terms of use for each site and/or image just to be on the safe side.

Also, while not always required, I think it's a good practice to include a credit line to the site and/or creator whenever you use an image from these free sites. It shows you are cognizant of copyright, and it helps promote these sites to others.

Here is a list of some free image sites. IMPORTANT: Your due diligence is required, as not all images are free. Be sure to read the Terms of Use for each site as they can vary quite a bit, and sometimes the images themselves have use restrictions:


There is a lot to be said about copyrights and usage, far more than I have included here. But for your purpose as a writer, I hope I have given you the basic information necessary to respect and properly use the creative content of visual creators (like me!) in your work.

www.sigmadog.com
 
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Yes. It's a Wall Street mystery, based on a real story. I was hoping for that wonderful nighttime view of the lit-up Brooklyn Bridge in the forefront and the financial district city lights and buildings reflecting in the East River. I'm also hoping to use the original New York Stock Exchange building for the front cover. It's pre-1900 so it should be public domain.

Other options are available.
 
All gorgeous! So are you saying just march ahead and do it?
Yep. You can do the search for alternate views, but these are the most "budget conscious ;-)" covers you can buy. Grab the $7 resolution, add the title and author, pick a font, and you're good to go.
 
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Here's a painting of the NYSE from Wikipedia:

New_York_Stock_Exchange_1882.jpg


I wonder how property rights laws apply to paintings of buildings as apposed to photos of them. Plus, if the building has changed its appearance, is a photo of its previous likeness still protected?

Lots of legal stuff to consider. :)
 
Here's a painting of the NYSE from Wikipedia:

New_York_Stock_Exchange_1882.jpg


I wonder how property rights laws apply to paintings of buildings as apposed to photos of them. Plus, if the building has changed its appearance, is a photo of its previous likeness still protected?

Lots of legal stuff to consider. :)
It's not complicated. If you create something then under copyright law the created thing and the use of the created thing's image (intellectual property) is YOURS. A painting of a building belongs to the painter, not to the owners of the building or some random person who wants to use the painting as part of their website, webstore, T-shirt shop, newsletter, album cover, etc.

If I took a photo of the Twin Towers in NYC I would still hold the copyright of that photo even though the towers no longer exist.

Copyright belongs to the creator of the work. Copyright LAW is there to formalize that fact, not 'give' the copyright to the creator.
 
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Yep. You can do the search for alternate views, but these are the most "budget conscious ;-)" covers you can buy. Grab the $7 resolution, add the title and author, pick a font, and you're good to go.
There are some limitations even with the $50 version.

Can Stock Photo offers several license options to allow you to legally use our content in most uses.
If you have questions or need to use our work in a manner not outlined here, please contact us.
The below should be seen as a general guide, and not the definitive license terms.
For complete clarity, please review our End User License Agreement.

Standard License​

(default with all content)
  • You may use our content in newsletters, magazines, and advertising / promotional material, business cards, letterhead, promotional posters, billboards, and brochures; all of up to 500,000 reproductions.
  • You may use our content on your website, video presentations, and multimedia displays.
  • You can not use our content as your legal logo, or as part of products for resale.
  • You may not redistribute or re-sell our content in any way.

Enhanced License Options​

Enhanced Licenses add rights to the Standard License, and permit you to use content for additional uses:
  1. Reproduction / Unlimited Print Run
    With this option, you are entitled to an unlimited number of reproductions of our content, provided it is not for resale or part of a product.
  2. Physical Items (limited run) and Electronic Items (unlimited run) for Resale
    If you select this option, you are entitled to:
    • Produce up to 10,000 physical items for resale, including t-shirts, postcards, greeting cards, calendars, mugs, and mouse pads, and
    • Produce an unlimited number of electronic items for resale, including electronic templates or applications, provided these products are not intended to allow the re-distribution or re-use of the content.
 
It's not complicated. If you create something then under copyright law the created thing and the use of the created thing's image (intellectual property) is YOURS. A painting of a building belongs to the painter, not to the owners of the building or some random person who wants to use the painting as part of their website, webstore, T-shirt shop, newsletter, album cover, etc.

If I took a photo of the Twin Towers in NYC I would still hold the copyright of that photo even though the towers no longer exist.

Copyright belongs to the creator of the work. Copyright LAW is there to formalize that fact, not 'give' the copyright to the creator.
When it comes to using photographs of other copyright property such as buildings, to be printed and resold, it is a bit more complicated. Here's an example:

THE TOWER ILLUMINATED
Controlled use

The various illuminations of the Eiffel Tower (golden illumination, twinkling, beacon and events lighting) are protected.
The use of the image of the Eiffel Tower at night is therefore subject to prior authorisation by the SETE. This use is subject to payment of rights, the amount of which is determined by the intended use, the media plan, etc.

Views of the Eiffel Tower taken by private individuals for private use do not require prior agreement. However, professionals must contact our teams, who will inform them of the conditions of use governing images.

«
The Eiffel Tower » is a trademark and is therefore protected by trademark rights.
Products may be labelled with this reference following the negotiation of a licensing agreement examined on a case-by-case basis.

 
There are some limitations even with the $50 version.
They may have made some changes in the years since I bought my images and upped the level where you have more usage rights (I bought the two I've used so far 6 years ago). I'll double check with them before I use the next one. Thanks for the update.
 
My first novel is set in the '70s and music is a big part of it. Originally, I referenced some actual songs that were popular during that time and quoted some of their lyrics, but then I found out you can't do that; it violates copyright laws, which makes sense. I would have been using someone else's work for my benefit, and possibly from which to earn money. The only way you can do that is to get permission from whomever owns the copyrights to those songs.

To get around that, I used songs that I've written. At least they're serving a purpose now rather than just collecting dust in my computer. :cool:
 
Regarding original artwork, I know of an oil painter who specializes in paintings of historical baseball players, stadiums and games. He is often asked why he doesn't sell prints of his paintings (which are gorgeous).

He can't. He can legally make an oil painting of Babe Ruth hitting a homer, even using an actual photograph taken by someone else as the reference. And he can sell that one painting for whatever price he can get. But if he made prints to sell, that would be copyright infringement of the Babe's likeness, the photographer's image, and any other distinctive mark.

Even further, he paints modern images from baseball games using photo references, but since he's making a one-of-a-kind work of art, it's legal. Now if he wanted to sell prints, he'd need to get permission from all the players shown (or their estate, if they are deceased), the photographer, the corporations whose logos appear on the outfield wall, the businesses whose logos appear in any billboards in the background, any fans in the stands whose likeness is recognizable, the owners of the stadium, and the owners of any distinctive building in the background.

I believe the same rule applies to custom artwork commissioned for cover art. Because it will be reproduced as an essential marketing item for a product, it needs to be clear of any distinctive features, logos, people, buildings, etc., that could be copyrighted. A good artist will know how to create the look needed without breaking copyright law.

It can be done, but it takes knowledge and skill.
 
Regarding original artwork, I know of an oil painter who specializes in paintings of historical baseball players, stadiums and games. He is often asked why he doesn't sell prints of his paintings (which are gorgeous).

He can't. He can legally make an oil painting of Babe Ruth hitting a homer, even using an actual photograph taken by someone else as the reference. And he can sell that one painting for whatever price he can get. But if he made prints to sell, that would be copyright infringement of the Babe's likeness, the photographer's image, and any other distinctive mark.

Even further, he paints modern images from baseball games using photo references, but since he's making a one-of-a-kind work of art, it's legal. Now if he wanted to sell prints, he'd need to get permission from all the players shown (or their estate, if they are deceased), the photographer, the corporations whose logos appear on the outfield wall, the businesses whose logos appear in any billboards in the background, any fans in the stands whose likeness is recognizable, the owners of the stadium, and the owners of any distinctive building in the background.

I believe the same rule applies to custom artwork commissioned for cover art. Because it will be reproduced as an essential marketing item for a product, it needs to be clear of any distinctive features, logos, people, buildings, etc., that could be copyrighted. A good artist will know how to create the look needed without breaking copyright law.

It can be done, but it takes knowledge and skill.
A copyright lasts for the life of the author plus and additional 70 years. How would that apply to Babe Ruth's likeness? He died in 1948, so 1948 + 70 = 2018. Did the copyright on his likeness expire three years ago?
 
I suppose the answer is yes.

And are there 200(0) great great grandchildren living fat off the royalties of Peggy Sue? Is that how this works?

Anyway, image rights rights - on a writer website - disgraceful :) - supported by Game o Thrones from TV pic-meme, very distressing on a writer website.

Yours faithfully,

Dorothy Nineteenth-Century
 
A copyright lasts for the life of the author plus and additional 70 years. How would that apply to Babe Ruth's likeness? He died in 1948, so 1948 + 70 = 2018. Did the copyright on his likeness expire three years ago?
I believe copyrights can be renewed. In the case of Ruth, I think his heirs can simply make use of his image for their purposes before the copyright runs out and that alone will renew the copyright.

This is my understanding. Whether it's 100% correct is open to question because … IANAL.
 
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