Can you copyright altered art?

I have a handmade shop online where I sell mirrors and magnets. What I do is to purchase graphics from sources such as other shop owners, and size them to the mirror or magnet that I am selling, post this item in my shop as a digital picture of the finished item, and wait for a sale.

I am having a dispute with a graphic artist from whom I have purchased digital altered art graphics for over a year and a half. She is having my products pulled from my shop, saying that I am making a copyright infringement on her products because of the way I display my items with her graphics. It is a long story, but my real question to you is... can a person copyright altered art? If she is taking copyrighted material and altering it, can she copyright it herself?

Thank you for any information that you can provide.

This is a very interesting question, and perhaps not quite as clear-cut as it might seem.

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.

In my previous article on using copyrighted images in making artist trading cards I looked briefly at international copyright law, and in particular the length of time for which copyrighted works enjoy protection, and made a couple of points which are very relevant to your question.

First, despite what museums and art galleries may tell you, all of those old paintings are in the public domain. You (and they) cannot claim a copyright on mere reproductions, but if you make a substantial change, or add your own creative input, you may be able to claim your own copyright.

That's important. You asked "If she is taking copyrighted material and altering it, can she copyright it herself?". Even if this graphic artist is using images which are now in the public domain, but making a substantial change, or adding her own creative input, she may well be able to claim her own copyright on the resulting image.

Of course, if she were actually using copyrighted images without permission, then she (and therefore you) would be on dangerous ground legally. That said, and on a practical note, if the images were used in such a way as to render them unrecognisable, she would probably be safe, and again might even be able to claim her own copyright.

The same argument would apply equally to your own use of her images, of course, but if I understand you correctly it's extremely unlikely that your images could be considered to be anything other than mere copies of hers.

Without knowing the precise situation, I can't advise you fully. However...

If this graphic artist is altering material that's in the public domain, adding her own creative input, there's absolutely no doubt that she may be able to claim her own copyright. If, on the other hand, she is using copyright material, she may or may not be doing so legally, and the degree to which she is altering it may or may not (for practical, rather than legal, purposes) make her safe, and perhaps even enable her to claim copyright herself.

Where commercially available images are concerned, most companies and individuals have an angel policy that you should consult before offering your artwork for sale.

Most companies will allow you to sell your work including their images, but may place conditions and restrictions on your doing so. These conditions vary, so it's important to check each individual company's policy beforehand.

Comments for Can you copyright altered art?

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Jan 15, 2014
Copyright issues

I've just started making collage arts and altered books using my own drawings, paintings and prepared papers. But I wanted to add found images from old books and re-use them in my altered arts. I was wondering about the copyright issue. Thank you for this article. It's very interesting and need-to-know information for all artists using found images.

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