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When Imitation is No Longer Flattery

December 26, 2010 Articles, Inspiration

O Over the holidays, the Toronto Star ran an “Emerging Artist” competition where the winner would have their piece printed on the front cover of the newspaper in full colour on Christmas Day, have all sorts of accolades, and receive $2500 as a cash prize. All in all, a wonderful competition for some young up-and-coming artist to win with the Toronto Star being Canada’s largest daily newspaper with over 2.7 million readers a week.

When I saw the winning piece, it seemed to me a typical Toronto street scene – 2 streetcars passing on a snow covered street. There was nothing special to it as these can be seen in art shows all over the city, but I understood why it would have been chosen. Nothing says Toronto more fittingly than our iconic red rockets. (somewhat ironic given our present Mayor). I had assumed that it was a photo that was manipulated using a Photoshop filter – one I had played around with many times, although the artist mentioned turned out to be a painter who apparently spent hours painting the piece after being inspired by dozens of photographs.

Unfortunately for our winning artist, her “inspiration” was a little too close to home.

Know Your Flickr Settings

If you do a search on Flickr for “Toronto streetcar snow“, the first image that will come up is by Portraits of Toronto, a photographer who has had his photos published by Torontoist, blogto.com, and Toronto Life, and who has exhibited his work throughout the GTA. You’ll also notice that his photo resembles the Star’s winning piece – a little too much.

  • His photograph was shot in 2007. Her painting was produced in 2010.
  • His photograph carries a copyright notice – all rights reserved. If you click on this link, it gives you all the info on what to do if you’d like to use the photo – in any way.

As compared in the video by Robert Pryor above, you can see that the similarities are too many for this to be an original piece of work. The problem here is, even if the artist was truly inspired by Portraits of Toronto’s photo – which she adamantly says she wasn’t – it’s copyrighted, and her work is too similar to be considered a true derivative.

Know Your Copyright

If you use Flickr, you have the ability to set several different types of copyright on your images and you should be aware of them if your work is ever used as “inspiration” or posted on another’s website.

Creative Commons Licenses

  1. Attribution (cc by) – lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.
  2. Attribution-ShareAlike (cc by-sa) – lets other remix, tweak,  and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the same terms. All new works based on yours will carry the same license so any derivatives will also allow for commercial use. Wikipedia uses this license.
  3. Attribution-NoDerivatives (cc by-nd) – allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  4. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (cc by-nc-sa) – lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  5. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (cc by-nc-nd) – only allows others to download your work and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

All Creative Commons licenses allow others to download your work as long as they attribute it back to you. If you wish to fully copyright your work, you can choose “All Rights Reserved”, which is what was chosen for the original streetcar photo.

All Rights Reserved

What did this designation on the original photo mean? According to the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators (CAPIC) website:

  • Canadian Copyright law gives the copyright owner of a work the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, publicly present that work, or any substantial portion of that work, or make certain other uses of that work.
  • To comply with copyright law, reproduction of a copyright work in most cases requires permission from the copyright owner. That permission must be put in writing and may involve a fee negotiated with the user.

Unfortunately, enforcing copyright on images is up to the copyright owner and this can be a very time-consuming process, often happening by accident or word of mouth. Getting recognition for your work or compensation for the copyright infringement can often be fruitless or lead to an expensive legal battle.

What Happens Now?

As artists we all find inspiration for our work in our surroundings – some in nature, some prefer the abandon of the industrial landscape, some are inspired by the shining lights and energy of performance, and in this digital age of Flickr and other photo sharing sites, we can easily find inspiration from all corners of the world from the comfort of our own homes.

As artists, we need to understand our creative and moral rights – wether as painters, photographers, or any other medium – and respect those of other artists as they look for inspiration on the internet where so many images are posted for anyone to view.

What could the winning artist have done to avoid this issue that’s now become a big story in the Star? I had a similar situation several years ago where an artists wished to reproduce one of my photographs, and she handled it very professionally:

  • She contacted me via email to let me know she like my work, her background, which piece she wished to paint, and that it was for an exhibit
  • She asked for a larger image that she could use as a reference for her painting
  • She printed my photo and posted it with her painting and credited it as her inspiration and attributed it to me
  • She sent me a photo from the exhibit to show me how her painting turned out and my photo next to it

I was happy to share my work with her as she was respectful of my copyright, asked permission, and attributed.

The winning artist of the Star’s contest did none of these things. She says she has “a lot of respect for other artists and would never intentionally rip off somebody else’s work.” Most artists – and Copyright Law – would disagree.

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