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I freelance, but I'm still green in some areas and Copyright is one of them. I know about using/purchasing stock and all that, I have accounts on all the stock sites, but I created a design, which resulted in some issues.The design had some copyrighted material and here's where I'm confused.

My design is complete vector based. I either made my own vector from an image, or I used a Photoshop brush. I was once told that a loophole with using images was that if you make a brush out of an image and create that image using a brush, it's considered a tool and there's technically no copyright. This could be wrong information, or maybe it doesn't apply to certain imagery. I downloaded a brush set that doesn't have any copyright restrictions attached to it and used that to create some of my images that are an issue. So my question is, if I create my own vector or use a brush of an image, let's say Mickey Mouse, could that still create copyright issues?

My next question is fonts. Can words be copyrighted? Some of the issues in my design were words and I understand the issue was probably related to the LOOK of the words, but if I find a font (one free font I found looked similar) can I use this without any issue?

Any help would be appreciated. I haven't had to worry about copyright before, until this project and it confuses me so much!

  • 5
    The bigger question is why you're using other people's work in a component of your work. Why doesn't The Guild admit it is set in the World of Warcraft? Why does Galaxy Quest and The Orrville put so much creative energy into setting itself in a lookalike, feel-alike döppelganger of the Star Trek universe, when obviously it means exactly that? Because using even the slightest component of someone else's work in your work encumbers your work on a way you really do not want.. So stop doing it. – Harper Sep 24 '17 at 23:16
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    @Klaws : that is nonsense. You can draw whatever you want. It is if you use someone elses copyrighted work as a prerequisite in the process of drawing it that you create a derivative work. For example if you start out using someone elses sketch for a painting or a mouse or whatever and then color it you are doing a derivative work and then you need permission. But if you start out all on your own without basing your work of any work copyrighted by anyone else then you are free to do whatever you want. – mathreadler Sep 25 '17 at 10:31
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    Whoever told you that if you just make a preexisting image into a Photoshop brush, then that would somehow remove copyright... go tell them off for being silly. – MichaelK Sep 25 '17 at 10:55
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    This article might come in handy: waxy.org/2011/06/kind_of_screwed – Emilie Sep 25 '17 at 11:18
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    @GD_Freelance: please refrain from asking multiple questions in one question. It makes it harder for people to answer adequately. Can you start a new question for your question about fonts/words? – PieBie Sep 25 '17 at 13:27
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Creating a "brush" or tracing an image to create a vector version of the same image would be considered derivative work. This is a form of infringement. You are using the original copyrighted material to create additional material which could not have been created without the copyrighted work.

For an example of how this can get you into trouble, one merely needs to look at the Sheppard Fairey case regarding his Obama 'Hope' poster.

There is no such thing as "change it by X amount" and it's no longer copyrighted. That is a myth and untrue entirely. If the original can be recognized in the derivative work, it's an infringement.

While rules and regulations vary based on geolocation, the safest assumption to always make is that everything is copyrighted and off limits unless explicitly otherwise stated.

Realize that just because something doesn't have a little © symbol on it or say anything about copyright, that does not mean the work is not copyrighted. Art and creative works, in general, are copyrighted the moment they are created. Your default position should be to assume that photo, poster, scan, drawing, statue, writing, logo, or whatever is copyrighted.


As for words, no they can't be copyrighted, at least not standard words. Unique names, which have no other use, can be in some cases. It is more often commonplace to see words or phrases trademarked which is different than a copyright. See Trademark vs Copyright. Trademarks are about preventing confusion within a particular industry and not about intellectual property (copyright).


See Also:

Is vectorizing an image copyright theft if the image is not CC/Public domain?

Is it copyright infringement by US copyright law if someone else modifies and uses my design?

Can I use the image of a copyrighted character in my commercial design?

How much do i need to change a vector image to make it my own

Graphic Design Copyrights

Copyright ownership: paid by hour vs. paid by project

Copyright on free work

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    By my reading of the Fairey case, the accusation was that Mr Fairey attempted to tamper with evidence of how he had created his image; it's not clear how things would have gone if he had simply stated truthfully the process of producing his image from the original. Photographs of people are considered artistic expression because they encapsulate aspects of background composition and in many cases the photographer's suggestions as to pose, etc. If one removes from a photoraph everything about it that would encapsulate any artistic expression on the part of the photographer... – supercat Sep 24 '17 at 22:33
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    Pasting text no longer seems to work on the iOS app, but in response to your third paragraph: in extension to the fact that there is no ‘change it by X amount’ rule, there is also no requirement that the original must be recognisable in the derivative work. You can change a piece of artwork completely beyond any kind of recognition, cover it with a solid black colour, and it is still, at least in theory, an infringement if your work is derived from it. Nigh impossible to prove and pursue in practice, but in theory no different from just adding a dot in the corner. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 24 '17 at 23:23
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    @supercat the original Fairey case was infringement because he used the AP Photo as a basis for tracing. What he did or did not do to cover up that infringement is another matter. – Scott Sep 25 '17 at 2:31
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    @Scott That was the protectible expression he took from the original work. But there's a separate question about whether enough of that protectible expression remains in the new work. If not, it's not a derivative work regardless of how it was made. The test for whether or not a new work is a derivative work is whether it contains sufficient protectable expression taken from the original work. – David Schwartz Sep 25 '17 at 17:05
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    It is not my intention to argue the merits of the Fairey case. – Scott Sep 25 '17 at 17:10
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Difficult to give a short answer to this, but I’ll try my best...

The mechanism by which you create the image (brush, scan, photocopy, potato print, whatever) has NOTHING to do with copyright. If it still looks like Mickey Mouse or is still recognisable as the image that you downloaded then copyright applies. Pretty much every ‘rule’ and ‘loophole’ that people like to believe about avoiding copyright is nonsense.

The words question is rather more complicated, but the answer is similar. You can trademark words (Nokia, Verizon, Coca Cola, etc) and you can also trademark the appearance of those words. This can include colour, font, embellishments or anything else that creates a unique appearance. If you’re recreating a company logo using a similar font then you are almost certainly infringing somebody’s copyright.

A good rule of thumb: if you think you might be infringing copyright then you probably are.

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    Your rule of thumb dont work very well with normal people who tend to ignore such things alltogether. +1 anyway. – joojaa Sep 24 '17 at 19:55
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    @joojaa : not much I can do to help those people, they deserve everything they get and they’re probably not reading this anyway :-) – Westside Sep 24 '17 at 19:59
  • In rare cases, the way the image was created can matter, kind of. For example, a vector drawing is basically a piece of computer code that draws an image. It's technically possible for such code to be copyrighted even if, for some reason, the image it draws is not. (The most notable example I know of is that typefaces cannot be copyrighted in the U.S., but the program code in a vector font can be.) In that special case, re-vectorizing from a raster image may form a sort of a loophole. Something like that might be the source of the OP's rumor. – Ilmari Karonen Sep 24 '17 at 22:39
  • "If you’re recreating a company logo using a similar font then you are almost certainly infringing somebody’s copyright." This might be true, but it's misleading. It's very important to understand that in the United States, the shapes of letters and symbols cannot be copyrighted. So you usually can copy the look and feel of someone else's letters. – David Schwartz Sep 25 '17 at 17:08
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    That's not entirely true. It actually does matter whether you drew Mickey Mouse, or a mouse that happens to look like Mickey Mouse. The latter would not be a copyright infringement, though it may well be trademark infringement or a design patent infringement. Of course, this doesn't give you license to draw Mickey Mouse and claim you were just drawing something like Mickey Mouse — you might have to demonstrate to the satisfaction of a court that you didn't really mean to draw the same thing (e.g. you'd be safe if you could show that you'd never seen Mickey). – alastair Sep 25 '17 at 17:37
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Copyright is a extremely complicated issue. Not only because in many cases the only way to know is to go to court for a clarification of the rules.

The rules also depend on where you are in the world. Although the entire thing is made more complicated by the Berne convention which allows you to import rules from other countries in certain cases.

Now if you do anything with mickey mouse better have a warchest for litigation. As you see its not always about right but also a question of how much you are willing to bet on. But no i wouldnt expect a brush to make much of a difference.

Words can't usually be copyrighted, atleast in most locales, however they can be trademarked. As for using a font, again depends on your locale some locales are significantly stricter than others. In US you can not copyright a fonts paths, but you can copyright the font software. While in Germany you can own copyright on fonts. ETC.

But I am not your lawyer. And if you do not find copyright confusing that means you're most likely a copyright lawyer.

  • Definately not a copyright lawyer. Don't think I could even pretend. :) But thank you for your help. – GD_Freelance Sep 29 '17 at 1:48
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The situation with fonts is really complicated. Fonts per se are not protected by copyright in the United States. They are protected by copyright in some other countries, but generally speaking that copyright covers the design of the typeface itself and not its use (thus a typographer using a font will not be infringing, though someone who copies a font might be).

Additionally, some jurisdictions provide for design patents, which are not copyright but have a similar effect, and can be applied to typeface designs.

The other wrinkle is that digital font files usually are protected by copyright, even in the United States — they're regarded as a form of computer code. So copying those is definitely infringement.

The history of copyright and typeface design is quite interesting — for instance, did you know that Times New Roman is the name of the original font, designed by Monotype, while Times (the shorter name, and the version shipped with PostScript) is actually a clone due to Linotype? Conversely, Arial is a clone, designed by Monotype, of the original Helvetica font, which was licensed by Linotype. Other type foundries also had variants, notably Bitstream's Dutch 801 and Swiss 721 fonts. Bitstream in particular was notorious for creating digital typefaces that were identical to existing typefaces and giving them its own names. (Monotype Imaging has since acquired Linotype, Bitstream and ITC, so a lot of this past behaviour is now moot, though interesting given your question.)

Anyway, using a font is not a copyright infringement. Copying a font might be, or it might be an infringement of some other kind of intellectual property right, depending.

  • We do not know where the OP resides. – joojaa Sep 25 '17 at 10:58
  • @joojaa Indeed not, and fonts are one of the more "interesting" cases. – alastair Sep 25 '17 at 17:33
  • Interesting information about the fonts. Thank you for your input. It's helpful. – GD_Freelance Sep 29 '17 at 1:47
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As others have mentioned in the comments, we don't know where you are located, and that impacts answers to this question. However, I recently did some research on trademarks vs. copyrights in the US, and I think some of the information I encountered might be useful to answering your question.

Here is some useful language from the United States Trademark and Patent Office:

A copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. The duration of copyright protection depends on several factors. For works created by an individual, protection lasts for the life of the author, plus 70 years. For works created anonymously, pseudonymously, and for hire, protection lasts 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever is shorter.

As they make clear elsewhere on the site, copyright is used to protect artistic/creative items--including font design, graphic elements, the shape of Mickey Mouse's head, etc.

About trademarks:

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. A service mark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than goods. Some examples include: brand names, slogans, and logos. The term "trademark" is often used in a general sense to refer to both trademarks and service marks.

Knowing how protective Disney is with its intellectual property, I would venture to guess that Mickey Mouse's head is actually trademarked, not just copyrighted. But regardless, I would think that if you reuse an image protected under either a trademark or a copyright in such a way that it remains identifiable as that image, you are skirting very close to illegal usage, and unless you have a lawyer on standby, I would avoid that.

Hopefully, this can also provide you with an answer to your question about fonts. As is pretty clear from the definitions, words cannot be copyrighted, but the design of that word written in a particular typeface CAN be copyrighted. A word can be trademarked as part of a logo, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the word cannot be used elsewhere, it just means that the owner of the trademark has protected that word from usage in situations that are similar to the trademarked usage. (This part is a little more complex, and I am not sure I am doing it justice with this definition).

Lastly,

I know about using/purchasing stock and all that, I have accounts on all the stock sites, but I created a design, which resulted in some issues.The design had some copyrighted material

You may already be aware of this, but images on a stock site are usually divided into those that are available for "editorial" usage and those available for "artistic/creative" usage (the term used for "non-editorial" varies on different sites).

Here's the description of editorial use only images from iStock:

Unlike the majority of our collection, editorial photos don't have any model or property releases, which means they can't be used for commercial, promotional, advertorial or endorsement purposes. These images often include news, sports and entertainment images that portray real-world people, places, events and things and are intended to be used only in connection with events that are newsworthy or of general interest (for example, in a blog, textbook, newspaper or magazine article).

If you used an editorial image for your design, that could be the source of your copyright troubles. All of the paid stock sites I have ever used have a filter that allows you to search for only non-editorial images. I highly recommend turning that filter on immediately; I cannot tell you how many times I have forgotten, and found the perfect image, only to discover I can't use it. :-(

  • Thank you so much! This information is all really, really helpful. As for the editorial use, I noticed it before, but never paid much attention until recently. I always avoid those, but had a client recently that was pushing to use one. I did some research on that and had to keep pushing back. We finally found an acceptable solution. – GD_Freelance Sep 29 '17 at 1:47

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