Exploring Public Domain Artists & Their Paintings

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About The Famous Artists & Copyrights

Thank you for visiting The Famous Artists!

The Famous Artists is a companion site to Reusable Art.Reusable Art has been a pet project of mine which was designed to be a resource for crafters and artisans to find public domain images and illustrations that they can feel confident in using for their projects.

As I researched the artists on that site, my belief that art is meant to be shared only grew. When I had the chance to obtain a huge database of artwork, it seemed only natural to create a second website to celebrate the lives and works of many of the world’s best artists. The primary difference between the two sites is that Reusable Art is more of a public domain image resource and The Famous Artists puts more emphasis on each artist.

The Famous Artists is organized by artist name and each artist will hopefully be represented by a number of their works as well as a biography. I’m not an art expert by any means. My goal is to celebrate the lives of the artists and their wonderful paintings. I am not qualified nor do I care to pick apart the paintings as to technique, style or whatever else art experts use to criticize the work of others. The paintings I plan on including on this site are those that are 100% family friendly and happen to strike my fancy.

With each painting, I also hope to put the subject in context. If it is a portrait of someone of historical significance, I talk about their place in history as well.

Unfortunately, things aren’t always clearly defined when it comes to copyright. The images on Reusable Art are primarily scans and photocopies from old books, magazines and other materials. The copyright rules are straightforward and easy to understand – everything’s based upon the date of the artist’s death and/or the publication date.

Copyright law appears to take an ugly turn when it comes to photographs of public domain works like those I share on The Famous Artists. The laws are not as clear cut and vary greatly between countries.

Copyright of Photographs of Public Domain 2 Dimensional Works of Art.

Most of the countries of the world extend copyright protection to artists 70 years after their death, at which time the work falls into the public domain. All of the artwork showcased on The Famous Artists is in the public domain.

Unfortunately, while the works themselves may be in the public domain, their digital copies may not be.

Most agree that there are two ways to “copy” or reproduce a two-dimensional work of art – through mechanical means (photocopy or scanning) or photography. When it comes to mechanical duplication, pretty much everyone agrees that the duplicate is afforded no copyright protection. Photographic copies, on the other hand, are a totally different story. While the United States and most other countries believe that a photograph of a public domain work may not be copyrighted, other countries are declaring the skills needed for taking the photograph are demanding enough to warrant copyright protection for the photograph. In many ways, these countries are allowing a photographer to claim copyrights to a public domain work of art they had no hand in creating in the first place. In some countries, it appears that important museums are effectively establishing full rights for themselves to the works in their collections by prohibiting anyone but their own staff to photograph the masterpieces in their possession. In effect, the museum has transferred the expired copyright to themselves in perpetuity.

What this means is that digital images being shared on The Famous Artists or any other website that are not created solely through mechanical means (scanned or photocopied) may have an active copyright depending upon where you live, where the photograph was taken and where you might sell something made from one of our images. The United States, where I live, does not grant a copyright for photographs of 2 dimensional public domain works.

The editors at Wikimedia have discussed this issue at length amongst themselves and with a number of international lawyers. They have come to the conclusion that the use of photographs of public domain works by Americans is most likely permissible under United States law regardless of where the image/photograph may have originated. (Their conclusion is that it would be highly unlikely that a US court would uphold a copyright issued for something created in another country for something that was not copyrightable in the United States.) The risk appears to be for someone living in a country that grants a copyright to a photo of a public domain 2-dimensional work and uses that photograph without permission. The problem, like with so many things shared on the Internet, is that I have absolutely no way of knowing who actually took the photograph and what country they lived in when they snapped it. Since all of the images on The Famous Artists are a mere copy of the original masterpiece, I have no way of knowing if the digital image was created via mechanical means or is a copyrighted photograph.

According to Wikimedia, as of November 19, 2010, the following countries have addressed this issue and have either issued a firm decision or have laws that remain inconclusive as to whether photographs of 2-dimensional public domain works are copyrightable.

Japan, Germany, Macao, Poland, Switzerland and the United States have all determined that photographs of 2-dimensional public domain works are not copyrightable.

France and the Netherlands have left the issue somewhat unclear.

The Nordic Countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) generally grant copyrights to photographs of public domain works for at least 50 calendar years after the photograph was produced. That virtually guarantees that any works appearing on The Famous Artists that are photographs, rather than photocopies or scans, taken in one of those 5 countries would be protected under copyright in those countries. The one exception would be if someone scanned photographs which appeared in a book that was published over 50 years ago. But, again, in most cases, I have no way of truly knowing where every photograph appearing on The Famous Artists originated.

In Taiwan, photographers must officially register their pictures after which it may be protected for 10 years.

In the United Kingdom, the courts have strongly decided in favor of the photographers and treat photographs of 2-dimensional public domain works as any other original creation. That means the photographs are copyrightable until 70 years after the death of the photographer – which also virtually guarantees that any works appearing on The Famous Artists that were photographed in the United Kingdom are protected by copyright.

Using Images from The Famous Artists

While I would love to say that everyone should support the original spirit of copyright and fight the ridiculous notion of being able to copyright what amounts to a “mere copy” of an original masterpiece, that would be irresponsible on my part. While it seems most of the world is getting this right and not allowing a photographer to essentially usurp an expired copyright for themselves, the reality is a number of countries are allowing this copyright transfer.

I recommend anyone considering using the images I’ve shared here on The Famous Artists to verify the laws of their country regarding copyright, photographs and public domain works. It would seem that someone living outside of the countries offering copyrights for these photos is most likely safe to use any of the images on this site; particularly for personal use. If, on the other hand, you plan on using any of these images in a public fashion, please do so only after familiarizing yourself with the laws of your country and make an educated decision.

I wish I could include the information needed to determine if a particular digital image was mechanically duplicated or photographed and where the original photograph was taken. But, I simply have no way of knowing how the file was created. For all I know it could be a scan of a photograph. I had considered including information about the whereabouts of each painting at the time I posted it on The Famous Artists, thinking that might provide clues as to whether or not the image could be copyright protected in some countries, but I figured as the site grows, keeping track of any sales or transfers of ownership would simply be too much for one person to handle.

So, with all that said, the images appearing on The Famous Artists are representations of public domain works which you may use however you wish. You are on your own as to determining whether or not a image originates from your country and whether or not it has been gifted with copyright protection. The artist biographies appearing on The Famous Artists are written by me and often require hours of research. They are all protected by copyright and may not be reproduced without my written permission.


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