508 478 2750

As a graphic designer, I deal with questions of copyright on a daily basis. Although I hasten to mention that I am NOT an attorney — much less one versed in the field of Intellectual Property (which is the specialty area of law devoted to copyright among other things) — everyone needs to understand that copyright is an important consideration. Particularly today, with the widespread dissemination of imagery and text via the Internet, you need to be more aware of copyright than ever before.

One common myth about copyright is that a copyright statement, an author’s or artist’s name or attribution, or the copyright symbol © has to appear on or immediately adjacent to the image or work in order to be protected under copyright law. This is not true! Copyright is “implied” (in other words, it’s automatically in place protecting the work) whether these elements are present or not, and it protects published as well as unpublished works, whether they have even been REGISTERED with the US Copyright Office or NOT! Registration is not required for copyright protection to be in effect.

Another common myth is that if you “give credit” to the person whose illustration or photograph you use, you can simply go ahead and use it without also obtaining their permission. This is also not the case. Some people think this kind of use of an image falls under the category of what’s called “fair use.” But “fair use” is a very specific term that applies to very specific circumstances, and if your plan is to avail yourself of “fair use,” then it’s best that you understand fully exactly what is involved with this.

So, as an individual citizen or a business, copyright law is still a consideration whenever you make use of any creative work — including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and other kinds of intellectual property. This includes photographs, illustrations, and visual images.

There are many misconceptions about copyright, and I do my best as a designer to advise my clients to help them avoid getting “tripped up” by these misconceptions. To start with, I NEVER use unlicensed software, imagery, or fonts in ANY of my work. And if a stock image is used in a design I create for you, I make sure it has been properly licensed or purchased, and is being used correctly and in accordance with the agreements established between us and the source vendor or the original artist.

Here are a few actual examples of circumstances in which I have stepped forward to protect my client from misuse or copyright infringement:

“We can take the picture and just change it a little — change the colors, or modify portions of it, and then copyright won’t apply.”
No, we cannot. Altering an image does NOT avoid your vulnerability in copyright infringement.

“We can scan these photographs from this magazine and use them on my website.”
In a word: No.

“Because I was able (allowed) to take this image from a web site by right-clicking and saving it, I can use it.”
Not true. Just because you CAN “grab” that image from a web site does not mean that you SHOULD, OR that it’s free for your use.

“I found this image on Google Images, so I can use it.”
Again, not true! See above.

“I tried to contact the photographer (or illustrator) about using the image, and they never responded to me, so I guess we can use it.”
Guess again. We cannot.

“This is an old poster with a photograph of ‘The Three Stooges,’ and we want to scan it and use the photograph in our ad.”
No. Do not assume that you can do that. The photograph is likely still copyrighted and/or owned by a third party or by the estate(s) of any one of the three.

“I got this picture from the Internet. We can just change the colors and then I can use it in my print ad.”
No. Not only would that be infringement, but images displayed on the Internet are typically at a very low 72dpi (dots per inch) resolution, so they are not of sufficient quality/resolution to be suitable for print. PRINTED images must be at a minimum of 300dpi (dots per inch) resolution, or they will look blurry, blotchy, and blocky (referred to as “pixelated”) when printed commercially. They look great on a computer monitor, but the fact is that they are simply not suitable for press.


To conclude on a more positive note, one of the benefits of engaging a professional graphic designer is that the work is original insofar as is humanly possible, and that a professional designer will help look out for possible issues of copyright infringement. We can help advise you on the use of images, and we can create original imagery and designs for you that are unique to YOUR business and YOUR brand. A professional designer also provides consistency for your marketing materials. So if you establish a brand and want all of your materials — whether in print or on the Internet — to share a consistent look and feel, and to carry your message in a coherent way that’s “pulled together,” call me!

We always advise our clients: if in doubt about any question of copyright, consult a qualified attorney who specializes in the area of Intellectual Property.

There are MANY resources on the Internet about copyright. Some of this information might surprise you! See these to start:

Copyright Basics — US Copyright Office Circular
A PDF file with useful information from the copyright.gov web site.

Copyright FAQs
The FAQ page at the copyright.gov website.

See more Thoughts.