Tip File: Is it okay to copy an artist in some cases?

The following is an excerpt from the April 2007 issue of The Artist’s Magazine‘s “Ask the Experts” column, written by Leonard DuBoff.

Historically, artists perfected their skills by copying the works of old masters. In fact, this still goes on today in many American and European museums, where each copy is required to have different dimensions from the original in order to prevent sale of the copy as an original.

Copying pre-existing works is legal, so long as the original work is in the public domain (meaning that the copyright on that work has expired). If, however, the copyright has not expired, the copyright owner has several exclusive rights, including the right to reproduce the copyrighted work and the right to sell the copyrighted work. This means that unless a defense such as fair use is available, the making of an unauthorized reproduction of a protected work (for example, copying another artist’s painting) is an infringement if the copy is substantially similar to the original. The unauthorized sale of an infringing copy may also be an infringement.

It is, therefore, important for you to determine whether the works you copy are still protected by copyright or whether those works are in the public domain. When your copies are substantially similar to the original, you are safe only in copying works that are in the public domain. Merely identifying the source of the work you copied will not provide you with a defense, and doing so may even make it easier for the copyright owner to pursue a claim of infringement against you.

Copyright has been a hot topic for several years now (in particular), so I hope this tip sheds some light for anyone questioning the legality of copying artwork. Want more? In the March 2007 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, Duboff has another article on “What Every Artist Should Know About Copyright.”

Have other tip questions? Let me know what’s on your mind!


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