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Copyright issues can be confusing and the following is an attempt to shed some light on the subject of graphic copyright, particularly for those who think anything displayed on a website is free to be copied!

Any image that is created, whether by hand, camera or by computer, is the property of the creator unless done as part of their employment, when the copyright is likely to reside with their employer, although this depends on the terms of their employment: basically whether "the work was done as part of their normal working activities" [1].

These rights usually last for the life of the author + 70 years and you don't have to add the © symbol, write on "copyright ...", or register the image although it's a good idea to do one of these if you believe the work has commercial value as you may have to prove your authorship at some point.

This leads to situations where people copy a cartoon character and thinking, correctly, that they own the copyright of their drawing, try to use the image. However, this brings us into the area of ® and ™ designs. You should assume that ALL cartoon characters and common business logos are registered which means that the commercial use of any image, drawn by no matter whom, which is recognisable as the character or logo is a breach of the owners rights! i.e. you own the copyright of your drawing but you can't use it for commercial puposes!

e.g. You've drawn one of the 'Peanuts' characters and would like it printed on a T-shirt. You've broken no copyright law but any firm which printed it for you is in breach of United Features Syndicate registration of this design!

Most organisations such as Disney, United Features Syndicate, etc. make money by selling printing rights for their characters and do not take kindly to even one-off bootleg versions. Even 'though United Features have released 50 years of Peanuts on-line, you can't copy them for sale. There are individuals who make money by finding breaches of these rights and bringing them to the attention of the owners for a fee!

If you're interested in the difference between a registered design, ®, and a trade mark, ™, this link gives a good explanation.

So, what are the simple rules?

You should assume that anything in a newspaper, magazine or on the Internet, is protected unless it specifically states you can use it for commercial purposes. As I said at the start, many people seem to think that images on the internet are free to use: this isn't the case. Even most clip-art is protected for commercial use: you can use it on your own computer but you can't have it printed on merchandise.

 Fair use 

This is a concept present in both US and UK Copyright Law which permits copying of material under certain conditions.

The criteria for US Law take into account,

  1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
  4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work
The criteria in UK Law are rather more strict. See here for details,

However, note that these don't define actual conditions under which you can copy. The rules are specifically designed to be tested by Case law and it's always best to ask for permission.

 How do you stop people copying your images from a website? 

You don't!

You'll find some descriptions of methods which are supposed to work but either there's a snag, e.g. disable right-click with javascript: this will work for two right clicks but can then be re-enabled!, or the process is so time consuming as to be impractical for a site with dozens of images, e.g. place a <div> with a transparent 1 x 1 pixel gif image over the image you want to protect or put them as backgrounds of <div>s and these can all be by-passed.

There are ways of adding copyright information to your images for immediate proof that they're yours.

 Use the EXIF metadata 

Many web images will be jpegs, and the jpeg format allows a block of metadata called the EXIF, (EXchangeable Image File), data which contains a host of things such as make of camera, shutter speed, etc. and which can include a copyright message. However, EXIF data can be edited by any machine browser such as Windows Explorer or xplorer2 and so your message is easly deleted. In fact, if you use a 'Save for Web' function on a graphics utility, it'll also remove most of the EXIF data, including any copyright message.

 Hide the copyright text in the file 

There are many on-line references to this process, usually under the tag 'Steganography'. In simple terms you zip a file or your copyright message and save it with the graphic file. The graphic still displays as usual but the message can be seen by opening it with any zip reader. Even if the file contents are examined, the compressed copyright text won't be recognsed as such. The problem with this method is that, if the image is 'Selected' and re-saved as a jpeg, the message is left behind!

What is needed is a method of actually embedding you message in the graphic data. This is easy to do for a Bitmap or Gif file, but much harder with a jpeg. However, there are methods available but software based on these is quite expensive.

 What can be done easily? 

What you can do is make a clear statement of the copying status of your images on your website.

Maybe you don't mind if people do copy your pictures but you might mind some of the uses they then put them to. The answer is to make a copyright statement and then lay out the conditions for use.

This site has an overall copyright statement on the © page and then the Cardiocrinum and Sorbus sections have their own statements of use for those who go directly to these pages. Basically we're happy for you to use our images provided that you acknowledge their source, don't use them to sell things and give us a link!

So what can we do if these rules are ignored?

We've had several instances of this. Some years ago someone pinched a photo of a Cardiocrinum and used it on Australia's eBay to advertise the seeds of a different plant! In 2014 someone lifted 15 pictures of Cardiocrinum and uploaded them to PhotoBucket as her own work.

In each case, we notified the organisation concerned and asked that the images be removed; which they did. In neither case did we try for compensation. Despite some sites stating that it isn't difficult, all it needs is for the individual/organisation to send you a letter of denial and you've got what could be a costly and, probably, international legal case on your hands. i.e. it would need to be a really damaging breach of our rights before we'd do it.

I've mentioned before the view that many people have that the images on a website are there for the taking. One comment on a forum posting really baffled me, "Why do they put them up if they don't want people to look at them?"; as if looking and stealing are synonymous!

The attitude of PhotoBucket also leaves something to be desired. When complaining about the 15 copied images, I asked for the e-mail address of the person who posted them so that I might explain the conditions under which she could use our images. Photobucket's reply was that I would have to subpoena them to get this! I imagine, (or hope), that the people running this organisation are responsible citizens. If they saw a robbery in process, they would cooperate with the police in apprehending or identifying the perpetrator without much hesitation. But when someone steals images they have to be subpoenaed before they'll help!

[1] Until quite recently, photo copyright belonged to whoever paid for the film!
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Last update: 17/10/2017