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If someone were to sketch or draw (digital or otherwise) an existing photograph by someone else of say, the Pyramids of Giza (by "photograph", I'm referring to images taken with a camera and not other sketches and drawings), would it be a copyright violation if one were to, for example use the sketch or drawing as a background in a poster or incorporate it along with an existing creative that one might be working on?


N.B. Not sure if this should be posted in Law Stack Exchange, Arts & Crafts Stack Exchange or here in Graphic Design Stack Exchange so if it belongs somewhere else, do kindly migrate it to the relevant community (or let me know and I'll delete and post it in the correct community).

  • Yes, it's a copyright infringement. – joojaa Jul 20 at 15:35
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    It’s not clear whether “someone” and “one” in your question are meant to be the same person. Did you sketch the pyramid from the photo and then use it in a poster? Or did someone else sketch it and then you use it in a poster? And is the sketch an exact replication of the photo, or just a loose interpretation drawing inspiration from it? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 at 15:47
  • Hi. Welcome to GDSE. I’m voting to close this question because it's a legal question. Sorry about that. Please don't ask for legal advice here. It's off-topic. Also note, I don't think Law Stack Exchange gives free legal advice, just like we don't give away free designs. – Billy Kerr Jul 20 at 16:26
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    @BillyKerr im not sure this is offtopic per see. Anyway copyright does not care if ors based of somebody elses work it is based on somebody elses work. – joojaa Jul 20 at 16:29
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    @AndrewL64 Generally, yes. If you draw a loose interpretation of an existing artwork, then you’re creating a separate artwork; finding inspiration in existing art is not copyright infringement. If you set out to make an exact copy, though, you’re not creating anything new, just copying something – which is exactly what you have to hold the copyright to do. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 at 16:41
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One needs to clarify the usage and intent....

If you merely look at a photograph and draw based on what you see, there's rarely any infringement. Using reference is exceptionally common and almost mandatory at times. I mean, there's no way I can travel to Giza to personally look at the pyramids in order to draw them. There's no way I could travel the south pole to view penguins in their natural habitat. [Extreme example: There's no way I can cut open a cadaver to view the internal organs of a human.] I would need to use photographs as reference..... etc.

However, if one uses a photograph as a tracing basis - meaning you use some automated or manual method to directly mimic the object(s) within the photograph, then yes it is often infringement or at a minimum derivative work (2). This includes things like painting over a photograph in Photoshop. Or using Illustrator to place the photograph as a template for drawing on top of, etc.. A vector recreation of a raster image is derivative at best and most often is an infringement.


Typically using a photograph as reference won't yield any direct representative copy of that photograph and if one is using a photo as reference there's rarely a desire to replicate the photo as close as possible. But even if drawing by hand, if you are so adept that you mimic a photo exactly, that too may be infringement.

There are often some major legal battles surrounding photos as reference. One such case can be read about here. And as explained, it really depends upon how a photograph is used and the resulting artwork created.


Ultimately, what is or is not an infringement can only be definitively determined by viewing the original photograph and the subsequent artwork created. It's all art, not science so there's no "formula" or "acceptable limit". So until actual work is viewed everything is merely speculation.

Be aware... you'll often see or hear people state "as long as you change it by X%, it's okay". This is entirely false. There's no such claus or loophole in any copyright law.

In most instances... if you question whether or not you are infringing up the rights of someone else, you probably already know the answer.

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  • I mean, there's no way I can travel to Giza to personally look at the pyramids in order to draw them. There's no way I could travel the south pole to view penguins in their natural habitat. haha good point. And as much as I agree with you with regards to if you are so adept that you mimic a photo exactly, that too may be infringement., it seems a bit ambiguous that a copyright infringement might depend on how good a drawer/sketcher/painter is imo. – AndrewL64 Jul 20 at 19:21
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    @AndrewL64 it is a bit ambiguous. Infringement can really only be definitively decided by viewing the original photograph and the resulting creation. Intent plays a large part. That's why there are legal battles - a difference in the interpretation of the ambiguity. It's art not science. :) – Scott Jul 20 at 19:24
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    "Executioner" lol, relax. 😀 Regarding the quality of the drawing, it must in the end depend on some case-by-case assessment. A poor copy of a photo of a face might just look like a general wiggly smiley face where a top notch artist might be able to make a drawing which can hardly be distinguished from the original. I also believe it matters how unique the original was from the beginning. For example imagine a photo of a red ball on a white background. Very hard to enforce your copyright to such an image. – Wolff Jul 20 at 20:53
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    Don't go stealing my red ball, @Wolff !!!!!!!!!!! – Scott Jul 20 at 20:54
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    Relevant : waxy.org/2011/06/kind_of_screwed – curious Jul 21 at 1:21

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