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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ethics and Art

Ethics (or lack of it) in the Art World.

This subject is harder for me, than it is for you. (Why do I feel like the parent when I say these words?) You often read my posts because you look to me for trust worthy advice and education. I feel a responsibility to teach. For some people this lesson will be easy for others it will not.

Here’s the question: Is it okay to sign and/or sell artwork that was done in a class, workshop, or online? Is a copy of an instructors work okay to sign and call your own? Is a copy of anyone's artwork okay to share, show or sell?

There’s no way to sugar coat it and for some it’s a hard pill to swallow. Surprisingly many people do not understand what they're doing is wrong.

Plagiarism and copyright infringement comes into the discussion when someone shows, signs, take credit or sells artwork as their own. Signing artwork, submitting to publications, selling...says, this is my original idea, concept and artwork. I've heard students quote what they think are “magic formulas” to get around copyright and plagiarism laws. They think if they change a small percentage of an image (5% or 10%,  crop a photo…) it gives them the right to call it their own. In my mind they're entering into a dark area. Why?  Someone who wants to bend or manipulate laws to benefit their status or bank account tells me something about their character. Not good.

Create artwork you can proudly call your own. For that reason, don’t use photos or references material you don’t have permission to use and reproduce. I've seen well known artist stripped of awards, honors and paintings taken out of international shows. All of this for using photos without permission or worse plagiarizing (copying) another person’s artwork. It's a huge black mark on their reputation, personally and professionally.

Images of my paintings, sketches and photos on my blog, Facebook, magazines, books, on-line courses and DVD’s are for educational and demonstration purposes, only. The information was provided as a teaching tool to study and learn from but don't sign, enter in shows, publications or sell. I’ve seen copies of my paintings in art shows, Facebook, Instagram, cards…. and others have simply taken my artwork and removed my name.  

It should go without saying, but here I go. Please do not use my teaching material as your own. If you are a teacher be one! Build your own curriculum on experience and knowledge. Support your lessons with images, text and demonstrations. You’ll be a better teacher and respected by your peers.

Some will want to debate the subject…I don’t. It all boils down to something pretty simple and I stand firm. When I was two years old I was taught, Don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. Pretty simple!

My next post will be something more hard lessons. Let's start the New Year with good choices and great art!


P.S. Please don’t tell me how to watermark or reduce my artwork so people will have a harder time stealing. If you do you're missing the point of this post.


  1. I loved your comments regarding plagiarism and couldn't agree with you more. What a wonderful lesson to learn and keep with us and into the New Year and throughout our lives! Thanks for sharing this, Brenda.

  2. P.S. I love YOUR painting of your new Visconti pen!

  3. Brenda, I agree 99% with your post, but would like to mention what I consider an exception to your premise: I purchased a painting from a fellow workshop attendee that I watched her paint during the workshop. She signed that painting, and I can guarantee you that it is "original" in every sense of the word. I am very familiar with both her work and the lady's presenting the workshop, and the painting is not in any way influenced by the techniques being taught. This artist had found the subject of this painting on her way home the previous evening and was burning to get it on paper when she arrived that morning. I was sitting beside her and watched (and marveled at) every step of the painting as it progressed from her mind to the paper. Physically she was attending the workshop, but her location was immaterial: she was oblivious to her surroundings and immersed in her work. I later loaned her the painting to enter in a regional show - it very deservedly won "Best of Show". So ... I have to reserve my agreement to not include instances where the artist is clearly not influenced by his/her surroundings.

  4. Hi Brenda .... I think you should post this at least once a year..... so true.

  5. Yes good way to end the year. I am sure some folks need to be reminded. ITS STEALING,,!,,
    The rest of us are fine with the reminder.
    I'm thinking if you can't dream up your own ideas, maybe get out of art!

  6. Well written! Over the years I've heard all kinds of excuses from artists who argue that the work they've copied or done under instruction is original. So glad you've written this article to help students understand that it's wrong!

  7. Bravo, well said! Sadly, some of your readers have had the same experiences you have this year, with a slightly different twist, of course. I am so tired of my work being copied. I walked into a Christmas musical this year and was handed a beautiful program which featured my artwork (used without my knowledge or permission.) It was an innocent mistake by someone who did not realize that there was something wrong with unauthorized use when done by a non-profit. And so it goes. We need to gently but firmly educate when we can.

    To your reader Herman Chelette, I respectfully disagree. Students are expected to pick up techniques and let them filter into their own original work produced from their own reference material after a course, but art produced in a class using the teacher's reference materials is not the student's to claim and use in any commercial way. It's fine to hang in your own home, but not copyrightable nor salable.

    I once sold an original piece of art to someone who thought because he purchased it, he had the right to reproduce it, that he owned the copyright. He owned a manufacturing operation and thought it was fine to scan and use on his product. He was shocked to find that I objected to his use of my art without a licensing contract.

    An artist owns his own intellectual property, whether it's a painting or a reference photo or a derivative work. These intellectual property rights do not transfer simply because someone takes a course or purchases a piece of art.

    Bravo, Brenda, and I hope you continue to spread the word. I think these issues are mostly a result of lack of understanding and your post will surely help.

    I would add that the Orphan Works bill, currently being debated again, would significantly reduce the rights of anyone who holds a copyright on visual intellectual property. When it comes up for public comment again, I hope you will revisit this topic on your blog so voters can show their support of artists.

  8. Brenda, I couldn't agree more with what you have said and attended a large show in Baltimore, MD. a few years ago, where an artist was disqualified after winning First Place because of the use of a photo without permission. Question with regard to workshops, would an infringement include a painting an artist did during a workshop (which was not the teacher's artwork), but an interpretation of a still life everyone was working from, that the teacher set up? Thank you.

  9. Very well written. I have met people who have confused this over and over and it is frustrating.

  10. Brenda, I am a retired college professor of graphic design and illustration. I now teach watercolor workshops to very small groups. I have always addressed copyright laws in my classes similarity to what you wrote. You explained everything very well. What I always added to my discussions on the subject was the personal aspect. I would ask my students how they would feel if they saw THEIR work copied and used. If they knew someone else was making money from the hard work THEY put into setting up a photo, composing a scene, drawing the image, painting the picture, etc. would they feel cheated? It's like having your house broken into, your identity stolen. I have experienced this and have felt violated.

  11. I just want to add that from my college teaching experience, the Generation Y/Millennium’s do not understand this concept at all of plagiarism. They actually consider it old school thinking. Most have never known a world without computers! They get all their information and most of their socialization from the Internet and anything online is fair game for scabbing, bootlegging and the other half a dozen terms they have for it. I don’t condone it or really understand it but it is just that way. I look at it this way if I was really concerned I would not put it online. And that is not realistic. So what do we do? I participate in creative commons, but any organizations like it would be a proactive.

  12. Very well said Brenda! It is never OK to copy others work and pawn it off as your own. It is a good tool to copy work for education. It is a great way to learn, but once you start trying to sell it or promote is as your work you are cheating the artist you stole from and yourself. Art is more than copying an image! It is about creating something and if you have used materials from other people, then it is not your creation. I think some students are nervous to create because they don't want to take chances. This is sad, because they won't find out what they can do by using ideas from others.

  13. When I was still teaching we had this discussion in almost every class! Many students are unaware, so it's good to educate them. I never had anyone use thier work in class with my material and try to sell or otherwise promote it, but I don't have the following you do either. I post a lot online and I think the Internet is ripe for plagiarism. I guess there are imitators and thieves in every field and I put my stuff out there with the idea that what goes around comes around. If you steal my work, someone much bigger than me know's it!! And Brenda, it's no consolation, but imitation is a form of flattery. Your work is amazing or they would not be pirating it! Blessings to you and on your work!!

  14. Unfortunately plagiarism is a huge problem for artists and other creatives working today. Having my work (and photos of my work) stolen and used by others for their profitable gain has been such a problem for me that I stopped teaching workshops and holding artist retreats. I just got sick and tired of being robbed. And no, copying is NOT the sincerest form of flattery. It's the sincerest form of thievery, plain and simple, and I am not flattered when my hard work is stolen and then used to represent the work of someone else. Who would be?

    The sad thing is, you can educate your students and blog followers with plenty of information but in the end, the only thing that really works is litigation. Sadly, you have to sue people. Unpleasant subject, but sometimes it's our only recourse.

    I know of a collage artist who regularly posted images of his 6x6 inch collages on his blog, and sold the originals to online customers. A woman who followed his blog started downloading his images, printing them out, and selling the prints as cards. He found out about it and asked her to stop; she refrained and continued selling his artwork on her cards. So he sued her. And guess what? He won! He won a substantial financial award and put the woman out of business. Good for him.

    I know of a photographer whose work was being ripped off his web site and used by an artist. The artist was told to cease and desist, and she did so immediately. She wrote a letter of apology to the photographer and promised never to do it again. Guess what? The photographer sued her anyway, and won a huge financial award. Apologies are not always enough, apparently. The moral of this story: Use another's artwork for financial gain at your own risk. Is it worth it to endure the headache and financial stress of a lawsuit? No way! So don't do it. USE YOUR OWN ARTWORK!

    Finally, I read an article in one of our national art magazines (I forget which one) about a man whose work is very popular and sold all over the world. He has licensing agreements with many companies, and his work is widely distributed. He's very successful. But that makes him ripe for ripoffs, especially in Asia where they seem to believe that copyright means "the right to copy." Anyway, this artist has a team of lawyers working for him full-time, and one of their activities is finding infringements of the artist's work and suing the perpetrators. The artist claims that even after paying hefty legal fees, he makes about a $1 million per year in lawsuits alone! So it can actually be a lucrative business, although I must admit, it's not an activity that I have any interest in.

    I guess the best way to protect yourself is to not post images of your best artwork online, or, if you do, use very small images at 72 dpi so they aren't easily printed out and used by someone else. And be willing to sue if necessary. Post a statement to that effect on your blog and/or web site. Stand up for yourself and your artwork. If you don't, there are plenty of unscrupulous people out there who will walk all over you.

  15. I think I am understand where the 5% or only 10% issue comes in. I am a college professor, and students are made to submit their work through programs that evaluate the amount of plagiarism in their submission. The university sets the "degree" of plagiarism that is allowed. Wait, before anyone gets excited about that statement let me explain. Some things will appear to be plagiarized in papers when they are common knowledge statements such as: "75% of the population who survive heart attacks will then go on to experience heart failure as they age". The software program may pick this up as plagiarism. So we allow a certain % to go through. Of course, the role of the professor is to take a close look and make sure the trigger for the perceived plagiarism is valid.

    My point is, we may be creating a generation of folks who see 10% and feel it is OK without further consideration of what they just copied.
    Just a thought.

  16. So true, just want to add for readers interested in books on the subject, "9th Edition, Patent, Copyright, & Trademark An Intellectual Property Desk Reference" by Attorney Richard Stim, is helpful.

  17. So true, just want to add for readers interested in books on the subject, "9th Edition, Patent, Copyright, & Trademark An Intellectual Property Desk Reference" by Attorney Richard Stim, is helpful.

  18. Thanks for reiterating what we teachers tell our students. I, too, am constantly being pushed to answer "well, what if I...". Looking for loopholes, I reckon.

  19. I sometimes paint people who are famous. Hopefully, I don't get in trouble because there's no way I would have a chance to meet or take my own photos of them. Brenda, may I ask what watercolour mix you use for gold, for e.g. the mix you use on the nib of that fountain pen? Thanks in advance.

  20. I am so sorry this happened to you, dear lady, and brava for taking a clear stand. I once was asked to judge an art show and was shocked to see someone had entered a copy of one of my own paintings! How on earth was that viewed as all right?!?

    This is something I tell my students all the time...I hope it gets through.