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03 March 2015 08:00

Copyright is a minefield, a nightmare, full of contradictions.

As a designer, where do you stand with regard to copyright?  I’m talking, here, about your responsibilities to other artists, rather than how you might benefit from copyright.

When you create a design, it should, ideally, be all your own work.  That means your own ideas, or interpretation of ideas.  If you are talented enough to be able to hand-draw a beautiful Mickey Mouse, say, that does not make it your own work, because someone else came up with the drawing first.  Basically, you’ve copied it.

Original works (art, books, music etc) are covered by copyright, so that the original artist, who may depend on the art he produces to earn a living, can benefit financially from his / her efforts.  If you have spent hours creating a work (not to mention the years you may have spent in training and practising), then you are not going to be very happy if someone else gets paid for it!

Copyright generally lasts during the creator’s lifetime plus between 50 and 100 years.  The length of time varies between countries and according to the type of work.  (They’re not going to make it easy for us!)  After that time, the work is in the public domain and you are free to use it.  However, be aware that this can be affected by secondary copyright.  The Mona Lisa is out of copyright, so you should be free to copy it.   But if you buy a post card at the Louvre and copy that, then you are probably breaking copyright, because the Louvre will own the copyright to the post card!  (If you read our interview with Sarah Summers, you may have noticed that she said that, when she draws animals or flowers, she copies them from her own photographs.)

If you want to quote a line from a book in your designs, you are probably OK, because you are only using a tiny percentage of the total.  However, lines from (recent) songs are probably a bit more dubious.

‘Free to use’ images on the internet are also a dodgy area.  ‘Free to use’ usually means for your own use only.  If you are creating a design with the intention of making it available for sale, most of these images are out-of-bounds.  To add to your difficulties, it can be very difficult to find out whether a particular image is useable or not.  My advice is, if in doubt – don’t!

Some organisations (Disney, the BBC) are well-known for coming down like a ton of bricks on anyone – however small and unimportant – deemed to be breaking their copyright.  And don’t forget – ignorance is no defence!

Quite apart from any legal implications, look at it from a moral viewpoint.  We are a creative community.  We should be encouraging each other, not stealing from each other.  If you see a great design, compliment the designer.  Then create your own design.  It might be in a similar style or have similar elements, but it should be completely different!

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