(New York, United States)
I find myself in a dilemma, and hope that you can provide me with an opinion. I found a picture that I liked by doing a basic search online. I downloaded and altered it rather heavily, and now plan to use it on some postcards, maybe business cards, or even as a main image on a website landing page. The photo is not credited on the website where I found it (it's probably from a free stock photo site), and I don't know how to find the owner of the copyright. Since I am planning to use the altered version to advertise my business, what are the chances that I might be infringing the copyright? Can I claim the altered version as my own work?
Thank you for your question, which reminded me immediately of an earlier question about whether it's possible to copyright altered art. Indeed I wondered whether you'd already read my previous answer.
Firstly, of course, we are not lawyers, so you can't depend absolutely on what we tell you. However, we are in a position to give you practical advice that a lawyer may not be able to.
Although the principles involved are exactly the same as in that earlier question and answer, I believe that your situation is somewhat different. In that case our visitor was using what appeared to be just resized copies of what her supplier claimed to be a copyrighted work. You cannot claim a copyright on a mere reproduction, but if you make a substantial change, or add your own creative input, you may well be able to claim your own copyright.
That's important. You say that you "altered it rather heavily". That in itself may be enough for you may be able to claim your own copyright on the resulting image, but (on a practical note) if the image were altered sufficiently to render it unrecognisable, you would almost certainly be safe in any case.
That's important, too, from the practical point of view. You're intending to use your altered image in a pretty high-profile way, and to make it your 'brand', as it were. That increases your risk in three ways: it's more likely to be spotted by the copyright holder, if there is one, he or she may be more likely to take action in those circumstances, and you would probably have made a substantial investment, financial or otherwise, in that brand image.
Unfortunately, we can give only general advice, and you will have to make your own judgement about whether your altered image is sufficiently different from the original for you to be able to claim it as your own work.
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