Would it be wrong to paint my own version of a painting I like?
June 22, 2008 8:06 PM   Subscribe

I stumbled upon a print of a painting selling online (sold by the artist thru a third party site) which I really love. I’m creative, so rather than buy the small and expensive print, I thought it would be fun for me to paint my own version of it. What are the ethics/copyright issues of this?...

I would not be selling the painting or trying to pass it off as my original idea, just making it to keep for myself.

I don’t think it would be a big legal issue, but I am also interested in how original artists might feel about something like this.
Artists: Would this bother you? Would you feel like you were losing a sale? Any other thoughts?
posted by catatethebird to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
No one would care; it's not really illegal to create your own version of something for personal use only.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:11 PM on June 22, 2008

People do this in art classes all the time. If someone should ask you about it when it's on display in your home, the nice thing to do would be to say which artist's work inspired it, and obviously not take creative credit yourself (because that would be douchey).
posted by phunniemee at 8:12 PM on June 22, 2008

Concur. You're definitely free and clear for painting your own and keeping it yourself. Selling it would be a no-no.

(In what scenario do you imagine someone would be able to enforce a law prohibiting you from reproducing someone else's artwork and displaying it in your own home? Fortunately, we're not quite a 1984 society, yet. ;-)
posted by disillusioned at 8:33 PM on June 22, 2008

I sell photographic art, and my philosophy has always been that if someone happened to download and print out one of my photos, I wouldn't really care. I would have no way of knowing anyway! I would prefer they purchase it from me, but making images available on the web carries that kind of understood risk.

Creating a new work based on mine would be even less bothersome. Now, if you were trying to make an exact copy of the work, and marketing it to sell it, that would be an ethical issue, and possibly a legal one.

I think you can sleep fine.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:40 PM on June 22, 2008

It would be nice if when you signed your work you said "your name after so and so." My son has an award which is made up of a copy of an original statue and that is how it is signed.
posted by konolia at 8:48 PM on June 22, 2008

Thanks guys. Yeah, I wasn't really worrying about the legality, as of course who'd ever really know? So much as just wondering what doing that would be called as far as copyrights go (fair use? etc., know nothing about it.)
And wondering what artists' perspectives are... I feel like it would be good karma to support the Artist by buying a print, but part of the reason to make my own painting is that I can't afford the print. (And also a painting with my own touches is much cooler than a flat print.)
posted by catatethebird at 9:23 PM on June 22, 2008

Every artist does this in every medium.

What you are doing is the normal, standard expression of influence on art.

There are no legal or ethical problems. And there would not be any unless you tried to exactly reproduce the art with the intention of passing it off as the original artists.

But that is not a homage, that is counterfeiting, which is very different.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:50 PM on June 22, 2008

I'd like to know. And sending a few bucks would be nice too, although not a needed thing.

Mostly though, I'd just like to know what inspired you so much and to see how your interpretation turned out.
posted by theichibun at 10:00 PM on June 22, 2008

From a copyright point of view, what you're proposing would be called a derivative work.

As to the ethics, if it's a print, then yes, he's losing a sale. This isn't an artistic reinterpretation and it's not a student copying works from the old masters as part of their education. It's you gaining value from his work without paying him for that value. If a friend of mine painted such a duplication and displayed it in their home, I'd probably look askance. It's in poor taste. This is his composition, his choice of subject, his color palette, his technique.

Imagine if you took a camera down to his gallery and photographed his painting, then enlarged the photograph, printed it and hung it on your wall. In your case it doesn't matter that you physically painted it; the intent is the same. It's just tacky.

If you like it enough to hang in in your home he should be compensated.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:46 PM on June 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

This happened to me, sort of, in college - I was a metal smithing student and I made a simple but unusual pair of earrings that I put out for sale during the art student's organization annual fundraiser, and rather than shell out 20 bucks, a girl from the intro class copied them. She didn't tell me about it, but our professor noticed her wearing them and said something about how she liked to see her student's wearing each other's work. The girl didn't say that she had made them herself - she didn't say anything. Anyway, when my professor mentioned it to me and I told her that I hadn't actually sold them and that they were still in my workbench, she was pretty angry and to be honest, so was I - not because I cared that she copied, but because, if I'd put hours of work into the earrings, the least she could do was put 20 dollars towards the keg at the annual art party.

Anyway, it was made clear to all students, in other art departments as well, that copying someone else's work, even for personal use, was not acceptable. This was mainly because, as students, we were meant to be putting our time to use developing our own ideas, but I remember specifically a class discussion about how difficult it is to make a living as an artist and how when you copy someone's work, you are, in a way, stealing the time and effort he put into the work, and even the money he put into his education and the years he spent practicing.

I think this is a gray area - I mean, if there's no way you would be able to buy the print, the artist isn't technically losing anything if you make a nice big homage, and if someone tells you how much they like it, you can tell them about the artist and expand his reputation. Regardless, the polite thing to do is ask first - and maybe, who knows, if you tell him how much you like his work but that you can't afford it, he might cut you a deal.
posted by cilantro at 12:57 AM on June 23, 2008

I wonder... have you considered how you would feel if you made the sacrifice of saving enough money to buy this piece of work which incorporates not only the artist's inspiration, but was made possible by his hard work, creativity, honed skill, and desire to create something? Owning the 'thing' is a shallow enjoyment compared to supporting its creation, don't you think? In this case, you don't even own the 'thing', just your comparatively narrow perception of it.

Why did he make it? What motivated him to make the effort involved in creation?

Do you want, in some small way, to encourage art, or do you want to just consume? Do you just want to be that American (assumption) who equates faux marble castings with the actual sculpture? There is good reason to celebrate the distinction.

Derivatives, editions, replicas are all OK, of course. Rodin, for instance, would probably be first to agree that art does not necessarily include 'unique' in its definition, but even a derivative steals something of the essence of what IS in its description. In some small way, this is like paraphrasing Mark Twain. As matter of fact, Twain comes to mind here, in his comment to his wife when she verbatim repeated a string of his legendary profanity to discourage him from using it, "Liv, you've got the lyrics, but you'll never get the tune".
posted by FauxScot at 3:58 AM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Maybe you could contact the artist and work out a payment plan or something like that. Or save your money. Or find another painting that you could afford.

As an artist I have had people copy my work and it's very painful. I don't make a lot of money from my art anyway. It's hard to sit in my booth at an art show and listen to people talk about how they could do it themselves or on one occasion stand there and talk about how they were going to copy my painting to put in their dining room, talking as if I were not even there. They acted surprised and offended when I asked them to leave.

I'm sure people have copied my paintings from the internet and at least I didn't have to sit there and listen to them talk about how they were ripping off my idea.

If you do copy the painting, what will you feel when you look at it?
posted by Melsky at 4:28 AM on June 23, 2008

So every time someone sees it, and compliments it, you plan to say; "Yeah, I totally ripped it off."?
posted by R. Mutt at 6:38 AM on June 23, 2008

This is a really interesting discussion. In general, asking the artists here, does the price of your original make any difference to you? I mostly know musicians, whose original work may be priced $10 - $20, and my attitude is typically: yes, of course, buy the original.

But what if the artwork in question cost $5,000? Or $1,000? Or $500? Would it be acceptable to make a copy, being clear to sign or otherwise indicate that it was not your original work?

In other words, I'm sort of feeling what cilantro's saying: if there's no way you'd ever be able to afford the print, then I don't feel like you're denying the artist a sale.

Perhaps this would be odd, but maybe you could contact the artist, tell them you could never afford the print, but would like to paint an homage and offer them a small fee. With complete understanding that you'd never sell the work, give them credit when asked, etc.
posted by lillygog at 7:40 AM on June 23, 2008

I was honored that this happened to me recently. Honored because the person (unknown to me, seems to be an art student, I stumbled upon it on the web) linked their art to my painting, and credited me.
The student's painting and my original.

catatethebird, if you display your derivitive work, even in your home, please give due credit to the artist.
BTW, personally, I'd never ask or accept a fee for this type of thing.
posted by artdrectr at 8:25 AM on June 23, 2008

I disagree with Dee Xtrovert:

No one would care;

False. I would care. See above for other counter-examples. Granted, the likelihood of anyone finding out is low so they might not have knowledge enough to care.

it's not really illegal to create your own version of something for personal use only.

False. Copyright law does not allow an exception for "personal use" as opposed to "commercial use." Section 106(2) of the copyright act explicitly gives exclusive rights to the copyright holder, "to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work;" Although section 107 creates a "fair use" exemption "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research[,]" that exception does not extend to "just making it to keep for myself." Economic considerations, though important, only factor in for the above categorized uses.

Of course, the artist could certainly grant you a license (for a fee or for free).

In sum: it sounds like you acknowledge that you ought not to copy the painting for your intended use; this thread has some artists suggesting they'd be miffed; and the law says you musn't. Although the likelihood of getting caught approaches zero, I'd suggest you not copy the painting without the artist's permission.
posted by GPF at 9:47 AM on June 23, 2008

Again, to me, the idea comes back to if you are trying to counterfeit or not.

I got the impression from the post that you liked it, and were going to put your own artistic spin on it.

If you are attempting to copy, brushstroke for brushstroke, the original, then yeah, just buy it.

But, if your intent is to use that artwork as a focal point for your own expression, then what you are doing is both legally and ethically allowed.

Think Andy Warhol.

As far as education goes, I would assume most budding rock guitarists have tried to imitate Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen. I would assume most budding painters have tried to make a "Scream" or a "Starry Night". I would assume most budding sculptors have tried to make a "David" or a "Thinker".

This does not make them thieves.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:20 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

See: "After Walker Evans."
posted by klangklangston at 1:42 PM on June 23, 2008

Ynoxas has it right. Yeah, there's something unethical about using someone's jewelry design when that person has such close contact with the originator. It's tacky. And an institution of learning has every right to try and stamp that out, if for no other reason than to preserve the idea that the students are supposed to be learning to create their own works, not copy their peers.

But GPF's understanding of copyright law is weak. No case has ever been successfully made against someone creating a work such as the one we're talking about for personal and private use, at least in the US. Section 107 discusses derivative works which are okay for *public* use without permission from the copyright holder - academic papers to which people may refer, for instance, or teaching or criticism which are theoretically accessible to all. Truly personal and private use isn't really tackled one way or the other; most lawyers would opine that any lack of persecutory precedent essentially makes the sort of use the original post describes totally fair game. At best, the law is rather silent.

I lived under a dark and grey totalitarian regime, so I'm a little surprised that anyone would even *want* to contrive an understanding of copyright law so draconian. But I'm reminded of that film with Noah Taylor wherein he is beaten and a light bulb goes off in his mind: so THIS is where they got the Nazis! And of course, there are people complete loony about people doing any sort of act, so there will be people who won't be "okay" with this. (I know a musician who got angry every time someone bought one of his major label albums. He was a crank.) Most people, however, would be flattered. Those who aren't tend to be overly precious cranks. Who don't understand even the basic tenets of postmodernism. Ignore them. No one will arrest you.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:46 PM on June 23, 2008

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