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Is it okay to copy and sell another’s work? Plagiarism and the Golden Rule

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Art by David Loezeau

Art by David Lozeau

How do you determine the difference between inspiration and plagiarism? It’s easy, but don’t ask me to explain it.  Just like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of Pornography, “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.

One of the oldest sins in art is knocking off someone else’s creation and selling it.

Artwork is as personal as your children.  It comes out of us, and we not only get possessive of it, we have a deep drive to protect its purity.

If you want to get an artist really angry, just show them where their art’s been copied and sold without their knowledge.  Selling one’s work as your own, without permission, is a hot button that brings out the ugly in people.

A good example is the never-ending debate surrounding Shepard Fairey, the famed artist of the Obama HOPE poster.  Although accomplished and talented, he’s probably spent a lot of time and money defending his choice to use the copyright image of photographer Manny Garcia without permission.  His fans will tell you that it was “fair use” or “appropriation,” terms that get him off the hook legally.  His critics will argue that he plagiarized the image for his own personal gain.

Regardless of how the law handles copyright infringement, no one is happy to discover that someone has taken their artwork without their knowledge.

WHY COPY SOMEONE’S WORK?

There are many reasons one would.  Companies will do it out of ignorance or greed.  For newly born artists, it may be what helps them to find their footing.  For some, it’s an attempt to create something which they are incapable of doing on their own.

It’s frustrating for artists who constantly get knocked off by others  who are selling their stolen art. Lowbrow artist David Lozeau has his art plagiarized so often that he instituted a program where he gives free prints to whistle blowers that alert him to it!  He then goes after the infringer and puts a stop to it.  He has an entire Flicker stream of his stolen art.  You can understand why people would want to steal his images – his artwork is unique and very desirable.  The problem is that the people copying his art are doing it for their own financial gain without his permission.

WHEN IT’S OKAY TO COPY SOMEONE’S WORK:

I wrote an article titled Is your art an Influence or a Knock Off about the virtues of being influenced by an artist before you, and how beautiful it is to pass that influence onto the next generation.  So you might think that I’m contradicting myself with this article.

Let me be clear:  There is a distinct difference between having your art and style influenced by another’s work and downright copying another’s work and selling it, without permission.

Drew Brophy Kyle Goodwin Collaboration

TO HELP YOU LEARN:  If you are learning to paint, imitating the paintings of your favorite artist can help you to develop better techniques and to gain inspiration.  If you don’t plan on selling these paintings, there’s no ethical issue by doing this.

FOR PUBLIC WORKS:  Community beautification projects can benefit from the works of an established artist.   Recently we were contacted by a public school asking permission to copy one of Drew’s underwater paintings on the side of a building.  We happily gave permission.

COLLABORATION OR PARTNERSHIP:  Partnering to collaborate on a unique piece of art is exciting.  In this case, you have the full participation of the artist that you are working with.  An example is of glass artist Kyle Hunter Goodwin.  He is extremely talented and is constantly challenging himself with new projects.  He asked if he could take Drew’s pirate painting and create a large, glass carving of the image.  He offered a percentage of the sale.  The result is a great piece of artwork and everyone benefits from the partnership.

WHEN YOU GET PERMISSION:  If you plan to sell the art that you’re copying or deriving from, always ask permission and give the artist written credit.  Offering to pay them a percentage of your earnings is recommended.  That way they are getting something out of it, too, and it’s a win-win for everyone.

WHEN IT’S NOT OKAY TO KNOCK OFF SOMEONE’S WORK:

There can be serious problems with copying someone else, without permission, and passing it off as your own.  They are:

CONFUSION:  You are causing confusion with the public.  People will see your art and confuse it with the other person’s.  This does not help either one of you.

DIMINISHES YOUR RESPECT AS AN ARTIST:  People may not respect you as an artist.  They may claim that you can’t do it on your own, that you have to steal from someone else.  This does not contribute to your success.

STUNTS YOUR GROWTH AS AN ARTIST:  You will never grow as an artist if you are outright reproducing someone’s art and style.  To grow, you must challenge yourself and cultivate your own look.

ILLEGAL:  If you are knocking off another’s work for financial gain, you are violating copyright laws.  You could be sued and/or get very bad publicity from it.

YOU’LL GET SHUT DOWN:  When you have an account on Esty.com, Zazzle.com or similar sites, you’ll have your account shut down if they get complaints about you selling copied images.  David Lozeau has shut down a few sellers on Etsy.com that have stolen his artwork.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ARE ASKED BY A CLIENT TO COPY SOMEONE’S WORK:

It’s an insult to say to an artist “Hey, I like your work, but will you copy this other guy’s art for me?”  It can also  be illegal.  But some people aren’t aware of the ethics of it all.  As an artist, it’s up to you to educate your clients on this.

Occasionally we’ll have a client ask Drew to paint someone else’s art for them.  “Here’s a copy of what I want painted on my surfboard.”   They hand us a printout of someone’s artwork.  When this happens, Drew will let them know that he will be happy to paint the subject or theme in his own way, in his own style.

When someone asks you to copy another’s artwork, tell them no and then give a suggestion as to what you will paint instead, in your own style and of your own design.  Let them know that you don’t want to break any copyright laws.  Once you point that out, people understand.

WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE WORK IS BEING COPIED: You’ve worked hard developing your own style and creating a name for yourself in the art world.  You’ve put in the 10,000 hours it takes to find success, and you are reaping the benefits.

But there’s a problem that comes with the success.  Others, artists or companies, are copying your work.  You find out from other people.  A friend e-mails saying “I saw another one of your knock offs today.”  It’s frustrating to see that someone else is riding the coat tails of your success.  And they aren’t even thanking you for it!

They say that imitation is a form of flattery.  When people copy you, it means that you are impacting people with your art.  If your art wasn’t striking a chord with people, no one would pay attention or want to emulate you.

But on the other hand, it’s confusing others.  Some people are mistaking the unrefined work of that emerging artist with yours.  And you don’t want that.

Every time we walk a surf industry trade show, we find Drew Brophy knock-offs.  This past February at ASR in San Diego we found his “Joe Tiki” drawing on skim boards.  I didn’t let the infringer know who I was until after I took his photo (see photo to the left) then I announced that he was breaking copyright laws.  I followed up with a Cease & Desist and he apologized.  Apparently, one of his customers gave him the artwork without saying that it was stolen art.  It ended nicely.

You can stop it by sending a Cease and Desist letter.  I’ve put a sample letter at the bottom of this post.

If that doesn’t work, you could hire an attorney.  The bummer is that attorneys cost a lot of money, sometimes more than you’ll get if you sue.  I would take that route only against a large company that is selling large quantities of your knock-offs.  As a last resort, you could always hire your cousin Vinny to take ‘em out at the knees!  (It may cost less than an attorney, and be more effective.)

For more suggestions, read What to Do When Someone Steals Your Content.

IF YOU MUST KNOCK OFF SOMEONE ELSE:

Nine years ago I was abroad and met a surfer who was painting surfboards at a surf camp I was staying in.  We were talking and he sort of apologized and said “Drew has been a big inspiration to me.  I have to admit, a lot of my clients ask me to copy his art.  But when I do, I always write on it that it was a copy of Drew Brophy’s.

So let’s say you copy the artwork of a living artist today.  You do it because you want to learn more about painting, and it’s for your own collection.   Or you copy someone’s art for a paying client.

So that you can live with yourself and save some embarrassment, and maybe even a lawsuit, here’s what you do:

1.)    Sign the artwork with a statement that says “Copy of (Artists name here) design by (your name here)”.

2.)    If it’s for sale:  Get permission.

3.)    Be careful of what your client’s ask you to paint:  If a client hands you a picture of something that they want you to produce, confirm that it’s their own design.  If not, require that they get the written permission of the artist who first created it.  Keep this written permission in your records to protect yourself.

4.)    Offer to pay the artist a percentage of your earnings.

I have a few caveats to this idea of not allowing for duplication of your artwork. You’ll notice that throughout this post I refer to artwork taken without permission for financial gain.  This is where I have the problem with people duplicating art.

When it comes to sharing your art, I have a completely different viewpoint. I love the idea of spreading art around the world, allowing others to use it freely for their blogs, magazine articles and printing it out and taping it to their wall.  It’s a true benefit when a writer takes an image of yours and posts it on their blog, with links to your site.  I see that act as a win-win for all.

When in doubt, use the Golden Rule.  It says do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Please, share your comments in the section below.  I’d love to hear your experiences with this.

Respectfully Yours, Maria xxoo

SAMPLE CEASE & DESIST LETTER:

I’ve paraphrased a sample letter from the HANDBOOK: PRICING & ETHICAL GUIDELINES, 12TH EDITION and combined it with my own attorney’s much shorter Cease & Desist letter.  You can use this as a template and make changes to it as needed.

Dear (Insert infringing Artist or companies name here):

I’ve become aware that you have made an unauthorized use of my copyrighted Work (herein referred to as Work) entitled ________.  Please be aware that I have reserved all rights in the Work, which was first published _____________.  (If you have filed a copyright, include “I have registered copyright for the Work on _______________”).

Your work entitled ____________ is essentially identical to my copyrighted Work.

As you neither asked for nor received permission to use the Work, I believe you have willfully infringed my rights under 17 U.S.C. Section 101 et seq. and could be liable for statutory damages as high as $150,000 as set forth in Section 504(C) (2) therein.

I demand that you immediately cease the use and distribution of all infringing works derived from the Work, and all copies, including electronic copies, of the same, and that you deliver to me all unused, undistributed copies or destroy such copies immediately and that you desist from this or any other infringement of my rights in the future.

If I have not received an affirmative response from you within 15 business days of the date of this notice, indicating that you have fully complied with these requirements, I shall take further action against you.

Sincerely,

_______________________

.

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100 Comments Is it okay to copy and sell another’s work? Plagiarism and the Golden Rule

  1. Akshay

    Hello

    I have made lots of templates with my creativity , now how do i sell with my copyrights ? my planning is to sell my templates again and again with different customers .

    Please suggest me and help me .

    Reply
  2. LEONARD SEED

    I AM A WATERCOLOR AND GOUACHE PAINTER. I WORK MOSTLY FROM PHOTOS I GET FROM WILDLIFE OR SERRA CLUB SITES. IT ENDS UP IN MY OWN STYLE. I ALSO DO OUTSIDE LANDSCAPES. AM I IN DANGER OF PLAGIARISM?

    Reply
    1. LEONARD SEED

      I PAINT WATERCOLOR AND GOUACHE. I USE PHOTO FROM WILDLIFE OR SERRS CLUB, ALSO OUTSIDE LANDSCAPE. THEY COME OUT IN MY STYLE WITH DIFFERENT COLORS. AM I IN DANGER OF PLAGIARISM?

      Reply
  3. Pingback: Plagiarism in art | Julie M Currey Art

    1. Sally Vidalin

      I just saw an exact copy of one of my original paintings with my signature removed and now being sold without my permission as canvas prints on a large website registered in Istanbul. So I filled out the Cease and Desist letter you provided as an example and sent it out ASAP. I was able to find two email addresses to send it to using scamadviser.com/check-website
      Thanks so much for this article. It has been of great help to me!
      Question: I live in the USA… Was this the best way to handle what is happening? The company is currently selling prints of my original artwork with my name removed.

      Reply
  4. Pingback: When does being influenced turn into plagiarism? | Lizintheshed's Blog

      1. Sally Vidalin

        Also… I must add that I sent out the letter to cease and desist and by morning, the man who was selling my art as prints (with my signature airbrushed out) stopped and removed the sales pages. All is well for now and huge thanks! Sally V.

  5. David Cook

    When someone takes partial quotes from famous authors such as Kahlil Gabran, Mark Twain, Dalai Lama and several others then puts the quote on placks but gives no credit to said authors and passes it off as her own. This person has been doing this for years and is making thousands of dollars from the sale of these placks. This is plagerism is it not. I have tried to look the other way but deep down I know it is stealing. Of course if I am found out I will have to face the wrath of this person. This person knows this is wrong but is like, “Well nobody cares and I’ll do what I want.” I have one of these placks and can show how said person gives zero credit to the true authors. I want to look the other way but this is a moral and ethical crime. So what should I do?

    Reply
  6. Jacob

    Thank you for your article. I come across it just after I discovered that a neighboring school won a notable and sizable prize for an artwork that was knock off. The work was presented as the students sole creation. I felt that all those students who struggled to find find their own creative voice where cheated – especially has all of the hard work is already done by somebody else when you copy something. I totally agree with your paragraph on – if you must do it the… The event was pinned here https://www.pinterest.com/pin/519462138245148750/ I did take the advise of the post previously and informed the artist.

    Reply
  7. AnneOSW

    Hi Maria, We have recently found our one-of-a-kind furniture plagiarized, replicated exactly and featured on a woodshop’s web page in Utah as well as installed in luxury Park City Utah homes on an interior designer’s website that we have worked with. We need advise on how to handle this. I have used your letter example above and sent him an email of it. He took down his webpage and facebook page…if he doesn’t remove the copied work from the luxury homes can we pursue action? We also have lost considerable income as he sold it to the market we sold to, there is also an interior designer involved you fed him the orders using photos of our work. We definitely need a lawyer and are looking for one. I would appreciate any advise. Thank-you.

    Reply
  8. amanda

    I’ve seen a few “small” artists that rip off other peoples work and sell it for profit at their own. I try and reason with them telling them that what they’re doing is completely unethical but they don’t see it that way.

    Reply
  9. Sarah hedges

    Maria if I use someone else’s photos for a mural on side of building do I need to contact them? This gentleman is a public figure and I wanted to use some photos taken by photographers . It’s john wooden and he is a figure of our community, hometown hero basically.

    Reply
  10. vernon unrau

    as I’ve only been in busuness less than a year, I’ve found your site extreemly helpful,especially in regards to PRICING and PROPOSALS. The other information you’ve given me has adressed the questions I should have been asking all along!!!Your words are inspiring and most helpfull .I look forward to more posts!!

    Reply
  11. Josh Wolf

    I have a question: I wanted to take pictures out of a picture book, and some magazine, glue them down on my canvas and paint over them – kind of like a collage / mixed media thing. Is that stealing? Thank you

    Reply
  12. John T.Bates

    My artwork was used to create the Bronco Logo . I created the artwork 38 years ago in Marquette , Michigan. I had a roommate who asked me to draw a pen and ink drawing for him for free of a Dragon Horse. It is small 8”by 10” drawing with a lot of intricate detail.
    What they did was crop the head of the Dragon Horse and then with out my knowledge at all somehow it was sold to the Denver Bronco team and they now have the copyright.
    I don’t have any proof except the room mates who I have not seen in 38 years that I created it.
    I can remember distinctly what I basically drew. The Dragon Horse had Bat wings and a pointy tail like a satanic figure would. The body of the Dragon Horse was thick and muscular and sort of stocky with thick hoofs with a lot of pen and ink shading. My drawing was supposed to be a cross between a Dragon and a Horse. That is why the ears were pointed back and the eye had a sinister slant to it . The Shadow around the Jaw and in the neck was simplified to show the edge of the muscle and because my room mate di not want a lot of intricate detail especially in the head.
    He and the other roommate that were two sisters specifically the older one did not want me to sign my name to the pen and ink drawing of the Dragon Horse . So I told him I would sign it with a Greek Symbol . I used this specific symbol on a lot of drawings I did back then . I used to specifically because it was the symbol on an old Girlfriends ring because I still had feelings for her. The meaning of the symbol was Peace.
    The Denver Broncos changed their Logo several years ago and many years after I created the drawing. Also what did was Reverse my drawing specifically the cropped Head of the Dragon Horse and create an elongated reverse of my drawing only as a horse nearly standing. i believe whoever this artist was that did this reverse logo must of had my original to create it because his version also had the thick legs and hoofs .
    The way (Direction of the head) the Denver Broncos show their logo is the same way I created with the body. The head of the Dragon Horse is exactly copied my drawing line for line including the mane that supposed to resemble fire to a degree.
    My drawing is a Black and white drawing . They added the Denver Bronco team colors to the logo.
    Is there anything that I could do about this ? I actually live here in Denver and have for years. I would not intend to pull the logo from the Denver Broncos but I do want the recognition for being the creator. Also I wouldn’t mind some money for my permission to use it and I would love tickets to the game because my wife and I are also huge Bronco fans.
    What bothers me the most is that I see the logo almost every where and somebody else got the money and the credit for my creation. That hurts the most . I was really hoping that someone would step forward and be honest about where they got the logo from. When you look it up there is no name put there as the creator so I believe somebody in the Denver Broncos management and/or sales dept does know very well what happened but they probably have no idea who I am and that I am the creator of their Dragon Horse Logo.
    I am an honest and reasonable Colorado resident . When I created the drawing I was a starving 19 year old kid in Marquette , Michigan . I am really hoping that someone in the Denver Bronco organization has the heart and honesty to step forward and contact me. I would deeply appreciate it and just to let them know I really am a devout Denver Broncos Fan in spite of what has happened.
    Thank you , Sincerely ,John T. Bates

    Reply
  13. Kathy Gilray

    I started drawing about a year ago,didnt even know i could or even enjoyed it. Anyway, I love to look at other sketches and pencil drawings online. I attempt to draw them sometimes. If i see one i love, it want to attempt it. I will never ever sell anything i draw from these, I could never do justice . They never really turn out like the original ones, because as I go I tend to allow my own style, if you will to take over. But when im finished , at times one might be able to tell that I used the original as a guidline. My question is this. Am I breaking laws if i post my drawing online on say Facebook, to show my friends what I did? Not to advertize to sell, again i would never do that. Just to show my drawing of an original to my buddies. I have never even given away free my stuff, unless it is from a photo someone took of their own family member and want me to draw it. Thanks for you advice. Kathy Gilray

    Reply
  14. Skye

    Being accused of copying someone’s work is very demeaning. Recently someone who did a free instructional video and asked on the video to see artwork that her video had inspired got upset when I did so. She also claimed I was copying her art and told loads of people. This all came back to me as people did not see any resemeblence to her work except a portion of a hat, sort of. I was stunned by this as she had said, “show me the work you do that I inspired.” So I’ve learned to even question what I produce out of an instructional video either paid for or free. It was pointed out to me later that this person touted a painting on her Facebook page that was an exact copy of someone else’s artwork claiming she had done it. It’s such a fine line you walk in learning when instructors Noth FREE and PAID FOR. Some your money to teach you their techniques, but don’t want you to use their techniques. If you go to school to learn to build houses you use the techniques you learned in school to build houses. When you pay someone to learn art techniques you should have rights to use technique as long as you do not copy their products.

    Norway did I copy this persons art, subject was completely different however her video was inspiring subject matter and edge of the hat was a bit like hers, you can see it hurts me still that I was accused of this. Especially because I introduced this person to art. I continue to try and develope my own style by incorporating the techniques I am and have learned from classes I have paid for and FREE videos. I encourage everyone to be careful when being inspired by someone’s work. Still hurt.

    Reply
  15. Kenzie

    Hi there, just a quick question!
    There are many great artists out there who “watermark” their work.
    What happens if I take the piece of art and re-draw it (physically go through the motion of drawing), but exactly the same? I am not drawing for profit but rather just to post onto social media and mention (for example)”Inspired by (…)”. Would this be counted as violating copyright laws? Thanks for the help!

    Reply
  16. bill

    Hi Maria,

    thanks for your very insightful article. Here’s a q looking at this idea from a different angle. What if I, as an artist, make some artwork that is derived from, or to say, in the style of, deceased artists. When I market it, I title it ‘in the style of…or something to that effect, making clear that it isn’t a work by the deceased, yet definitely close to their style. Is there a generic way I could title these artworks so that I would be unquestionably in the clear legally?? I have no intention of plagiarizing or trying to pass myself off as these other artists, but there are many people who would love something close to the style of say a calder or a miro but can’t afford it, so I can happily step into that gap and make something quite similar in style, but not a miro. Let me know what you think please. and thank you so much!
    bill

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      A style cannot be copyrighted, so you can paint in anyone’s style. You just can’t copy someone’s work. I think it’s great marketing to title “in the style of” – that’s a terrific idea.

      Reply
  17. Sonal Shouler

    Hi Maria,

    I am wanting to organise a ‘copy cat’ art auction to raise money for Cancer research. I would like to get local artist to ‘copy’ their favourite artists work and than auction it. If I get artists to Sign the artwork with a statement that says “Copy of (Artists name here) design by (your name here)”. Would that be OK??

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Sonal, any artist that copies another’s work without permission is violating copyright and infringing. I recommend that your artists get written permission from whomever they are copying. Sorry, I know it’s the hard way, but, it’s the right way to do it!

      Reply
  18. hcg drops

    I blog quite often and I really thank you for your information. This great article has really peaked my interest.

    I’m going to book mark your website and keep checking for
    new information about once per week. I subscribed to your RSS feed too.

    Reply
  19. Maria

    What happens when the artwork falls in to the public domain, yet someone copies it and then claims it is their work? Can a person still get nailed for that? Seems to me it’s still morally wrong to claim work as one’s own, with or without copyright protection.

    Reply
  20. Nicola

    Hi Maria,

    If I copy an artists subject matter but recreate all elements in a different medium from different sources, but the overall composition be similar, would this be against copyright laws?

    Reply
  21. Derek

    Hi Maria
    Good helpful website.
    I have a question, or request for comment.
    I have an interest in art, and complete drawings for friends and sell them for a small fee. I have marketed my services via social media and am now beginning to receive requests from further afield. One person in particular is keen, and has sent me design ideas, from which I have produced drawings, which she is delighted with. She wants more.
    She has now told me that she is developing a clothing line and will be using my drawings on these. She now wants me to provide a disclaimer stating that whilst I brought her ideas to life, they were her ideas and that I cannot use them for promotional or marketing purposes.
    I understand the reasons, and in principle have no issues, however I would like some cover for myself if e.g. her clothing line goes viral and she makes a boat-load of money, whilst I am left with only the few pounds for the drawings. It could be seen as a one-sided arrangement in that case. I could increase the price for my drawings, but while her business is young, I don’t want to stifle her opportunities.
    My question is – Do you think there is a reasonable compromise that I can suggest to her so that if her line is successful, I can benefit to an extent, as they are my drawings?
    Thanks. Derek

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Hi Derek,

      Great question! When you create art for someone, even if it was based off of their ideas, you are always the copyright owner.

      Your question is, should you sell her all rights to the art (which means you will no longer have any rights to it in the future)?

      My recommendation is to license the art to her for a period of time (i.e. 3 years). Retain all rights to the art, and in 3 years, if she wants to renew the license, you can do so if you wish. And at that time, if the art went “viral” as you say, you can work out a better deal to be paid for the new term.

      Most new companies don’t make it (sadly), and so it’s another reason to keep your copyrights. If she stops using the art or goes out of business, you can still use it in the future for other projects or companies.

      Reply

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