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Question about art photography prints
April 27, 2014 2:54 PM   Subscribe

Is it violating copyright to scan a photo from an art photography book, have it printed at a larger size, and frame and display it on your wall at home? Is it ethically problematic? Would a reputable print shop do it for you?

I realize that pro photographers usually sell official prints of their work, but for even a moderately well-known art photographer they seem to start at a couple thousand dollars, and often they don't seem to be available at any price, say if there was a limited edition that sold out. Whereas my method costs a few hundred dollars and works for any photo that's been included in a decent quality book.

Once you get much under $1,000, I'd rather buy a print directly from the photographer, and I've done that a few times. (In that case there's often not a book published anyway, though even when there is I'd pay more to buy a print directly.) But when it's a famous artist, I wouldn't feel that same sense of responsibility. Maybe I should?

Again, this is as much of an ethical question as a practical one. I haven't tried it, but I'm sure lots of people have and the FBI isn't kicking down their doors. But at what point does it become wrong, or cheating the artist? I mean, say I rip the photo right out of the book and tack it up on the wall. Nothing wrong with that, right? Now say I take a photo of the photo and blow that up...? What if it's in my office rather than my home? What if it's in the reception area of my office? Now we've crossed the line, right? But where was the line exactly? And is it different for photos and paintings? Will it be different when people can 3D print a perfect replica of a sculpture?
posted by neat graffitist to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Copyright is the Right to make a Copy.
The line is when you make that copy, hence the actual copy that you paid for (in the book) is ok, but you making a copy is not.
There are exceptions for fair use.
Nope, same rules apply to sculpture, or even a sculpture based on a photograph.
posted by Sophont at 3:00 PM on April 27 [4 favorites]


This Comic book is a great introduction to these issues. It is a project of Duke University's Center for the Study of the Public Domain.
posted by Sophont at 3:04 PM on April 27 [3 favorites]


Sophont: right, so I guess the "copyright" part of my question is actually a question about fair use. And I realize fair use is always debatable. In this case it's non-commercial, it arguably doesn't affect the market value, certain photos might be part of a work rather the whole ...I'm not trying to start a legal chatfilter though. That part of my question is more: has this specific circumstance been adjudicated or is there more clear legal guidance than just the definition of copyright?
posted by neat graffitist at 3:06 PM on April 27


FWIW, FedEx Kinkos will not do this. I've tried. They get mad.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:09 PM on April 27


A reputable print shop will not do this for you... So perhaps that answers your question somewhat.
posted by saradarlin at 3:15 PM on April 27 [5 favorites]


The short answers to your three initial questions, respectively, are yes, it depends, and no.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:23 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


Each "fair use" case is decided individually, but I don't think "I don't want to pay the photographer for a print" qualifies by itself for a fair use argument. You probably know this, but the application of Fair Use has nothing to do with deciding what seems to be "fair" in the way the word is usually used...

I think you probably answered your own question, about whether doing this violates the artist's copyright. I think this is mostly a question of what you are comfortable with ethically.
posted by BillMcMurdo at 3:26 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I can't tell you if that specific situation has been decided, but you can look at the four-part test that the supreme court set down. My amateur look at it says that since the art prints are a commercial product, you can't make your own print. It's pretty much like making your own copies of wedding photographs, which is definitely not okay without a release.
posted by wnissen at 3:26 PM on April 27 [1 favorite]


I tried to scan a 30 year old photo (originally taken by a professional photo journalist) of my father after his death and the photoshop refused.
posted by dchrssyr at 3:27 PM on April 27


Making a copy of the artwork out of a book is NOT 'fair use'..... that might be something like printing an image of the work in an art gallery's sales catalog; making the kind of copy you propose is purely and simply a copyright violation, and no reputable copy shop will do it.

(And as a data point, I couldn't get a shop to print a copy of my *grandparents* wedding photo (from 1927!), because I didn't have a written release from the photographer.)
posted by easily confused at 3:30 PM on April 27


Yes, it is a violation of both Fair Use and copyright. You can apply the four criteria for fair use for educational and for parody purposes, but your example is outside the bounds of the concept of fair use.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use
posted by haunted by Leonard Cohen at 4:13 PM on April 27


Your purpose has nothing to do with Fair Use. You can rip a page out of a book and frame it and it has nothing to do with any copyright violation, unless you sign it "Richard Avedon" and try to sell it. Not many places will scan it for you, but you could do a decent job yourself.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:19 PM on April 27


I don't think "I don't want to pay the photographer for a print" qualifies by itself for a fair use argument.

If they're not selling prints at all, is that relevant?
posted by neat graffitist at 8:15 PM on April 27


If they're not selling prints at all, is that relevant?

Nope. Part of the "right" part of owning the copyright is the owner has the right to choose whether to allow copies to be made at all.

And I realize fair use is always debatable.

Not always, no. The phrase "fair use" doesn't just mean "most people think it's pretty much fair to use a work this way" - it has a specific meaning when used in considering copyright issues, delineated as part of the Copyright Act of 1976. To quote the relevant section of the law:
"Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."
So, right off the bat, you're making a copy for your own personal enjoyment, not for any of the reasons defined by the law. So "fair use" doesn't apply.

I mean, say I rip the photo right out of the book and tack it up on the wall.

The publisher of the book paid for the right to make copies of the picture to put in the book (which you indirectly paid for by buying the book), but you haven't made a copy of the picture. No copyright violation.

Now say I take a photo of the photo and blow that up...?

Now you have made a copy. If you haven't gotten permission from the copyright owner to do that, you've violated copyright. In practice, of course, you could probably wallpaper your entire house with blown up photos and suffer absolutely no legal consequences, but technically you're legally in the wrong.

Whether you think this is an ethical violation is between you and your ethics.

What if it's in my office rather than my home? What if it's in the reception area of my office?

Well, that would probably increase your chances of getting busted for violating copyright, since it's now in a public space where many more people will see it, but otherwise irrelevant.

But where was the line exactly?

Right here: "scan a photo from an art photography book, have it printed". You made a copy. You aren't the owner of the copyright, you don't have the right to make a copy.

is there more clear legal guidance than just the definition of copyright?

FAQ page of the U.S. Copyright Office.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:53 PM on April 27 [3 favorites]


I mean, say I rip the photo right out of the book and tack it up on the wall.

Yes, do this!

I did it with a large format children's book. Actually, I cut the pages out carefully and got them framed. It worked very well. We already owned a copy of the book, which we loved, and we bought a second copy to dismember for this purpose. It was remaindered at Amazon for $17, so it was a very inexpensive way to get some art up on the walls.

The key was buying a second copy of the book. There's no way Kinkos would have made copies of pages from the first copy of the book we owned.
posted by alms at 10:07 PM on April 27


This might count as "a copy for personal use," which, depending on your jurisdiction*, could be legal. This is the justification for “format shifting” of music and movies. Format shifting from book to wall could possibly be covered by the same justification, but copyright holders are not likely to encourage you to think so.

As noted above, getting Kinkos or whoever to help you do it might be difficult, but their corporate policies aren’t the final arbiter of legality; they have been sued over copyright issues in the past and they tend to be cautious to protect themselves.

*For example if this page is to be believed it looks like it would be legal in Australia.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 11:59 PM on April 27 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Quinbus Flestrin raises a good point, and I'd amend my above answer (and apologize for the crabby tone.)

There is the possibility of a "fair use" exemption if you're making a copy for personal use only, although as far as I can tell this has been established in the U.S. mostly if not solely via legal precedent created by court cases, rather than specifically outlined in the law.

One of the big cases was Sony Corp. vs. Universal City Studios, a Supreme Court case where the court determined that the use of home recording technology for the "time shifting" purpose mentioned by Quinbus Flestrin did not constitute copyright infringement.

The Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress put out an analysis in 1989 called Copyright & Home Copying: Technology Challenges the Law, and a bunch of it is available for free preview via Google Books. Chapter Three seems to be the meat of the analysis.

Note that the above two links cover audio and video recording - I wasn't able to find much specifically regarding photos & images, and I'm not sure if the precedents established in audio/video cases would necessarily transfer to cases regarding image copies. Also, from what I can tell, most of the court decisions seem to rest on the idea that the copyright owner has already received some benefits from the copyright, thus passing the "effect on the market" part of the four-part test mentioned above. So making a personal copy of a legally purchased CD is one thing, making a personal copy of music you got for free from a P2P file-sharing network is another.

So I guess it'd be possible that making a large copy of an image you got legitimately would be itself legitimate, especially if it stayed in your house rather than out in your office in public view. But you can also see why a professional print shop would rather be safe than sorry and choose to not even get near the possibility of being sued as a participant in a case of copyright infringement.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:39 PM on April 28


Yeah, to build on Soundguy, as a former Kinko's employee:

If you do this yourself, you're mostly (but not totally) clear.

But if a print shop does this, they're engaging in contributory infringement, and since they're getting paid for it, they're open to punitive damages. Which are a lot more than you'd pay.

That said, Kinko's employees are regulated from above with dumb, draconian policies, and are only going to do this on the overnights when nobody gives a fuck. I know plenty of local, reputable small shops that would do this for a one-off image, but even then you're talking about a lot more money than you realize, money that's usually better spent just buying another print. (Scanning and oversize printing at any sort of decent quality is pretty expensive, like, a couple hundred each to scan and print, and even then it's likely to not be the great quality that you'd get from the underlying image printed correctly. Also, I doubt that Contact would do that for you; if I was looking for a place to do it, I'd be looking at neighborhood sign printer shops, which would also mean a step down in quality.)

I mean, if you want famous photos that you can blow up fairly economically and totally ethically, check the FSA archives. You can get digital negatives, repro negatives, and even prints of some images.
posted by klangklangston at 5:53 PM on April 28


Thanks for all the replies. I'm a little surprised no one took on the ethical question but I definitely got my answer on the print shop's stance.

I just discovered that the picture that made me think of this is actually available on the Magnum site for licensing/digital download, though it's not among the prints they sell. I wonder if I should just fill out the licensing form for "personal use" or something and see what they quote me?
posted by neat graffitist at 4:48 AM on April 29


Yeah, why not?

As for ethics, a lot of people touched on that: Yes, it is ethically problematic.

I'm further to the copyleft than most people on here, but the arguments that may be mitigating in other forms just aren't here. You're not making a new piece of art; you don't need to see the work in its full form before deciding to buy it like you might need to listen to an album; anti-infringement measures aren't lowering the quality of the underlying work to the point that would justify infringing.

Instead, you're proposing a way to make yourself a crummy copy of something famous because you can't afford a legit copy that remunerates the people involved with the print.

I think that asking about licensing is pretty much the ideal. You should be able to get a reasonably-sized tif and print the image on your own, unless the photographer is really concerned with print quality (which they may be; bad prints make images look worse than they are. I have some photos up on etsy that are also jpegs on my tumblr, and I'd hate if someone printed out an enlargement from the jpeg because it'd look like fuzzy ass next to the actual prints — that's one of the reasons I'm not really worried about "watermarks" and other nonsense).
posted by klangklangston at 8:35 AM on April 29


Just to close the loop for anyone who comes across this later: they quoted me $4,000 to $15,000 for a signed print, depending on size. I asked about a digital download to print myself, and they they don't offer that at any price. So that's Magnum's policy :)

you're proposing a way to make yourself a crummy copy of something famous because you can't afford a legit copy that remunerates the people involved with the print.

Sure I can, just not at the level they want to be remunerated. They've created an artificial supply constraint and price point that they believe will maximize some combination of total revenue, cachet or whatever their mix of goals is.

I get that US copyright law may allow them to do that, but that doesn't mean it carries any moral weight. In any case, they're separate questions.

As for ethics, a lot of people touched on that: Yes, it is ethically problematic.

What I meant is I'm surprised that very few responders had a view on the ethical question that wasn't framed by the legal one. Regardless of what the law says, should a creator have the right to restrict personal copying for personal use of a legally acquired copy? Do I owe them some moral duty w.r.t. how I copy (and even transform) something I acquired legally, as long as it's just for my personal use? That may be a little chatty but it seems like the kind of would-this-be-wrong-to-do poll question that shows up often on Ask Mefi.
posted by neat graffitist at 12:01 PM on April 29


"Sure I can, just not at the level they want to be remunerated. They've created an artificial supply constraint and price point that they believe will maximize some combination of total revenue, cachet or whatever their mix of goals is."

First off, I don't think you actually have a clear idea of how much good prints cost to make, especially considering all the other associated overhead of making the image (the print price has to pay for cameras, etc.). Depending on the artist, career, etc., $4k might be an extremely cheap amount relative to the investment made in producing that image.

Second off, a physical print isn't an entirely abstract and artificial supply constraint — print quality matters. Like, for most darkroom work, the final print takes as much skill, if not more, than the initial shot. Ansel Adams was as much a darkroom genius as he was a camera genius, and making sure that the print quality was sufficient is important.

"I get that US copyright law may allow them to do that, but that doesn't mean it carries any moral weight. In any case, they're separate questions."

Sure, fine. I don't find arguments from the law particularly convincing on moral questions either. However, it's both worth noting that you were the one who asked the question, and followed up with a rephrasing specifically about the legality, e.g. "adjudication," so it's not surprising you got legal answers.

As for the morality, we can move through this pretty briskly:

You want the picture not for any reasons that might enrich the public at large, either criticism, comment, or creating new artwork. You want the image for an essentially selfish reason, that brings no benefit to anyone else. In exchange, you want the photographer to suffer a harm against both his general "moral rights" (i.e. those to control the presentation of his work), as well as his property rights (i.e. the ability to make a living from his photography).

"What I meant is I'm surprised that very few responders had a view on the ethical question that wasn't framed by the legal one. Regardless of what the law says, should a creator have the right to restrict personal copying for personal use of a legally acquired copy? Do I owe them some moral duty w.r.t. how I copy (and even transform) something I acquired legally, as long as it's just for my personal use? That may be a little chatty but it seems like the kind of would-this-be-wrong-to-do poll question that shows up often on Ask Mefi.

Again, you framed it legally. But in general, yes. A creator should have some right to restrict copying "for personal use," because "for personal use" isn't a universal excuse and covers both behavior that should be allowed and behavior that should be prohibited. The default is to respect the wishes of the creator unless there's a good enough reason not to, and "Because I want a bigger copy and don't want to pay," isn't a good enough reason to overcome the harm.

(Further, by scanning and enlarging the print, you haven't "acquired legally" the license to the image.)

If the image were out-of-print, if it was something that was going to be used for new art, if it was something you were going to use for teaching a class or doing comment or criticism, or if it was something where you needed to see it at that size prior to purchasing it, those could all be reasons to morally engage in copyright infringement. What you're doing now just reads like rationalization for something you know is wrong but want to do anyway.
posted by klangklangston at 1:47 PM on April 29 [1 favorite]


very few responders had a view on the ethical question that wasn't framed by the legal one.

I'm having a hard time seeing how my having and expressing a view on the ethical question could be anything but chatfilter. Which is why I avoided it. The legal aspect of the question is answerable, the ethical one is just, like, my opinion, man.

Maybe next week you could post a question asking about books and essays and articles examining current positions on the morality and ethics of copyright and its' applications.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:48 PM on April 29


klang: I don't think I conflated the legal and ethical questions as much as you're saying, and I'd like to debate some of your other points, but I realize Ask is not the place for that, so I'll just say thanks for all three of your thoughtful replies. You've made some good points I hadn't thought of.
posted by neat graffitist at 3:50 PM on April 29


You can always memail (or email) me, man. Like I said, I'm a lot more copyleft than most people on MeFi, but I'm also someone who works a fair amount with different forms of intellectual property, and has for a while. (I'm also pretty left about property in general.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:03 PM on April 29


You agree that, under copyright law, they have the right not to sell you something you agree they own. Then you wonder if your proposal to simply TAKE what you want from them anyway is somehow a "moral" question?!? It's exactly the same if someone came into to your house and took your TV against your wishes: it's called theft.
posted by easily confused at 4:16 PM on April 29


No, theft is a bad and reductive argument to put forth here; there's no fair use argument for theft, like the BetaMax decision, and licensing isn't necessarily bound by the doctrine of first sale (otherwise, anybody would be happy to enlarge and print the photo from a book).

That kind of analogy works fine for tough talk aimed at teens, but for adults, it muddies more than it clarifies.
posted by klangklangston at 4:20 PM on April 29


They've created an artificial supply constraint

This has been bugging me for a while, and I finally figured out why.

You may be somewhat conflating the means of distribution and the physical representation of the work with the work itself.

The image you would like a copy of is, as an image, as a work of art or craft, unique. The subject, the composition, the angle of the shot, the distance from the subject, the mix of light and shadows and how the light interacts with physical objects and how that's all captured by a camera all adds up to a singular specific image. In the same way that a particular collection of oil paints distributed on canvas ends up as a singular, unique painting; or a particular collection of musical notes and rhythms and words combine to create a unique song; or a particular collection of words in a certain order create the plot, characters, and background environment of a unique book; or a particular compilation of software code creates the structure and plot and character and environment and gameplay of a unique video game.

The supply constraint isn't totally artificial, because the image is singular and unique - there is only one, just like there is only one She Loves You song written by Lennon & McCartney, there is only one Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone book written by J.K. Rowling, there is only one The Starry Night painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Thus, the "supply" is actually naturally limited to "one." The map is not the territory, the physical manifestation of a work of art is not necessarily the work of art - a song exists as a separate copyrightable entity regardless of whether it's distributed in the form of sheet music or a recording, an image exists as such an entity whether there's one physical embodiment of that image sitting in a file on a photographer's hard drive or a million copies spread out over the web. (This is the part that can be hard to get your head around, how the thing that's copyrightable isn't actually a "thing" in the physical sense.)

The question then becomes, "How can the creators of a work derive some benefit from having created that work?" One way is to create a lot of copies of the work and to sell those copies relatively cheaply to a lot of people, and this is generally how we approach works where copies are relatively easily and cheaply made, like books and music recordings and photographic prints. But it is also possible for the creator of the work to choose to benefit by selling the actual unique work itself, or a limited number of copies of the work, for a higher price, and this choice carries no more or less ethical or moral weight than the choice to distribute multiple copies.

Furthermore, our expectations of what works are available for how much are often affected by the medium in which the work is created and traditions and common practices that have grown around different mediums. Would you be discussing "artificial supply constraint(s)" if you had fallen in love with an oil painting or a sculpture? Probably not so much, because it's commonly accepted that creators in these mediums benefit by selling the singular and unique physical embodiment of the work, rather than a bunch of copies. You might be disgruntled that a version of the work isn't available in a slightly different medium (like a print copy of a painting, or a small plaster reproduction of a sculpture), but would you really be claiming that a painter has "artificially" limited the supply by only creating one oil painting?

But in this case, you're enamored with a photographic image, and photography is a medium where it's very common for the creator to benefit by distributing many many copies of the image, so you (we) have come to expect that copies of an image should be easily and cheaply available. But it is not legally, ethically, or morally necessary or superior for a photographer to choose to distribute their work via multiple copies rather than one original print or a limited number of prints.

And the approach of approving a limited supply of copies isn't unique to the visual arts. Lots of authors have written books that intentionally have a limited print run, or make only enough copies for distribution to friends and family, and Sufjan Stevens actually did a "copyright trade" with another songwriter, and the new owner of the copyright chose to "distribute" the song via small invite-only listening parties (MetaFilter FPP about it here.)

In short, every work of art is singular and unique, therefore the "natural" supply of any given work is limited, and creators who choose to limit the number of copies available are not morally inferior to those creators who choose a wider distribution model.


price point that they believe will maximize some combination of total revenue, cachet or whatever their mix of goals is.

Yes, exactly, that's kind of the point of copyright, as it is practiced in a capitalist society (at least in theory and principle) - the creator of a work should be able to derive some benefit (usually at least partially financial) from having expended time and effort and materials and skill in creating the work, which will encourage and/or allow him or her to continue to create more works, and the creation of works of art/craft/knowledge/etc. etc. etc. is generally considered a good thing for our society and culture as a whole, even if any individual work is not as widely disseminated as we might like it to be in an ideal world. And it has been left up to the creator to choose for themselves the best way to maximize whatever benefits they may receive. You may disagree with their decision, it may turn out that in the end their choice did not maximize their potential benefits, but allowing the creator to make that choice is an important part of the principle of the right of a creator to determine what happens with the works they create.


Sure I can, just not at the level they want to be remunerated.

This is not really a great argument, though, because, well, we live in a capitalist society, where the creator of that photographic image has to buy food and pay rent just like the rest of us. Ford Motor Company wants to be remunerated thirty-thousand-plus 2014 U.S. dollars for a new Explorer SUV. I'd like to remunerate them $1000, but you and I both know that I won't be driving off the lot with a new car at that price, and Ford would certainly have a valid point if they noted that the cost of materials, machinery, and labor to make the new car handily exceeded that $1000 I'd like to pay.

An individual or corporation charging more than you want to pay is not necessarily evidence of a moral failing, and you don't get to claim the moral high ground simply by proclaiming that you think you should only have to pay "$X" dollars for any particular good or service.
posted by soundguy99 at 11:24 AM on May 4


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