While you may be interested in your rights as an artist, I’d like to cover the subject of copyright from the other direction. The rights of others. I can’t tell you how many times I‘ve heard students say that it’s okay to use someone’s photograph as a reference for a painting if they just change a certain percentage of thing. . My only comment is: absolutely not!
Here’s the basic rule, if it’s not your photograph than it’s not your property. Using someone’s photography is stealing, plain and simple.
Using a photograph as a reference for a drawing or painting should only be done if you are given permission directly by the photographer, publisher and/or found the photos on a website that allows you to use such photos for reference (i.e., www.wetcanvas.com ). If you want to practice, using other people’s works from magazines, books, websites that is fine. But never share, sell, exhibit or even give away the practice pieces.
Beyond the ethic issue here, plagiarizing someone’s work can be very costly. You might think because you’re here in Portland, Oregon, no one is going to bother with you stealing. So let’s suppose for a moment that you find a really cool photo on the Internet and you create a watercolor painting from it. You submit the work into a juried show. You not only get into the show, but even win a prize. Then, off the picture goes, traveling on exhibit throughout the state. It’s so popular that it’s picked up for publication in a magazine and you even start to sell greeting cards.
Now let’s say, Hallmark Cards found the same photo and, unlike you, asked permission and even paid the photographer handsomely for the use of her work. They proceed to use the photo as part of their card collection. Then one day, the photographer and/or Hallmark notices that you’ve used the same photo but without permission. I bet you a cup of coffee and a scone at Starbucks that you would be in deep trouble—not only would you have to cease and desist your own card production, but you may have to destroy your original painting and possibly face paying some financial damage. So would it be worth it?
Just in case, you still seem a bit fuzzy on the subject of copyright, I’m including below the definition straight from the United States Copyright Office (you can find the link at: http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.pdf):
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States
(title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including
literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This
protection is available to both published and unpublished works. Section 106
of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive
right to do and to authorize others to do the following:
• To reproduce the work in copies or phonorecords;
• To prepare derivative works based upon the work;
• To distribute copies or phonorecords of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending;
• To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
• To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work; and
• In the case of sound recordings,* to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.
Clearly, the artist who has created the original work has the right to hold the copyright. The law is there to protect all of us. The next time you’re tempted to pass someone’s work off as your own, think about what It means, no matter how much you change the original work. For more information on this subject you can go to this link: http://www.copyright.gov/or purchase the book, Legal Guide for the Visual Artist by Tad Crawford.