Is This Legal?

Jane Doe
(Florida, USA)

Is it legal to purchase inexpensive prints at retail stores, and then alter them with beads, glass and resin, and resell them (with the artist's name covered up) as your own creations, at high prices for enormous profit?

Thank you for your question, which reminded me immediately of an earlier question about whether it's possible to copyright altered art.

The short answer is that it depends on the circumstances.

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 those in that earlier question and answer, I believe that the situation that you describe 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 someone makes a substantial change, or adds their own creative input, they may well be able to claim their own copyright.

You don't explain the reason for your question - whether this is something that you are considering yourself, whether it's purely out of interest, or whether you feel that you've been wronged in some way by a third party. However, from your tone I get the impression that you may be the injured party in this instance.

Neither do you say to exactly what 'inexpensive prints' you refer. That may be important. As we explain in our article on what you should know about selling artist trading cards, in which we deal with copyright law in some detail, and despite what museums and art galleries may tell you, all of those old paintings are in the public domain.

What that means is that it's perfectly legal to alter a print of one of those old paintings, and indeed someone who does may be able to claim their own copyright on the result.

On the other hand, if the work of art in question is not yet in the public domain, and the print is sold under licence, the position is less clear. However, as we've said, if the original image has been substantially altered, this may be enough to make this legal. On a practical note, if the image were altered sufficiently as to render it unrecognisable, anyone who did this would almost certainly be safe in any case.

How much alteration is sufficient to avoid copyright infringement? This article by Mary Minow may provide a clue.

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