Painting From Photos Part2: Copying and Copyrights

Armand Cabrera

In the second part of my discussion on the use of photos for the basis of your paintings I want to talk about copying other people’s photos and copyright in general. Let me make a distinction here so we have a basis for debate or agreement. I think using photo reference or copying paintings while you are learning your craft is fine as long as you never pass the work off as your own or try to sell them. There is no violation of copyright when it is personal use.

When you copy a work from another person you must sign it and add the phrase after (name of Artist being copied).

Using other people’s photos or art as the basis for your own and then selling it is where I have a problem and so does the United States Government. The law is very clear on this; it states

The U.S. Copyright statute, Title 17 of the United States Code, protects original works of authorship which includes original artworks. Section 106 of the Copyright Act reserves to the author, or creator, of a work, the exclusive right to reproduce the work in copies as well as to prepare derivative works. The definition of copy in the Copyright Act includes any “material objects… from which the work can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated…”.17 U.S.C. Section 101.The definition of derivative work includes “a work based on one or more preexisting works.”

Copying another artist’s work either as a copy or a derivative work under the Copyright Act, is stealing. The right to either copy or produce derivative works from an original artwork is solely and exclusively owned by the original creator of the artwork. This means you have no right to take someone else’s work either as a direct copy or as a derivative work and sell it, ever. There is no percent rule, there is no different media rule and it doesn’t matter if someone else you know does it. It is illegal.

I know wildlife photographers who now make a substantial portion of their income selling their photos to artists and suing artists for stealing their work off the net. If you want to paint wildlife you should be able to afford to go where the animals are and gather your own reference or pay for it.

Artist Jeff Koons was sued for his work ‘String of Puppies’ by photographer Art Rogers; Rogers claimed copyright violation of his photo ‘Puppies’. Rogers won.


The so called artist Shepard Fairey, is in a lawsuit right now over his use of an AP photo of Obama which Fairey made into a poster without permission.

Harlan Ellison the great American writer sued James Cameron on the Terminator movie for stealing from his teleplays for the Outer Limits television show from the sixties ‘Demon with a Glass Hand’ and ‘Soldier’. Harlan won.

A.E Van Vogt sued Ridley Scott and Fox for stealing his story of an alien, Ixtl from Voyage of the Space Beagle and making it into the movie Alien. A.E. Van Vogt settled out of court with Fox for an undisclosed sum.

It didn’t matter that the movies or the photo were a different media. It was a clear violation. This also applies to photos and sculpture being used as the basis for paintings by artists who were not the creator of the original work. If you want to paint, be honest about it and paint things you have actually experienced, take your own photos and do your own paintings; what could be more satisfying than that?

4 thoughts on “Painting From Photos Part2: Copying and Copyrights

  1. Darn! Armand, I'm in a spot about this.
    Ive been working on a painting that I am imagining up.
    The setting is a night outdoor party. I want to include many people, some I have never met except through blogging,(art friends)
    The only refrences I have are the pics they post on their blogs.
    I'm not tracing or projecting, however I am useing their photos for refrence.
    Will this get me into trouble? I don't want to have to get permission from everyone,It will ruin the surprize.

  2. So – publicly displaying a picture I drew using a photo by another artist as reference is already illegal, even if I credit the original artist, but as long as I don't sell it, nobody cares?!

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