Suggested "best practices" for using the graphic artwork of others Lincoln Cushing, Docs Populi, 11/30/2007
"Don't contribute to our own historical amnesia."

When is it appropriate to "recycle" artwork from other artists, times, and places? Mark Vallen's article on Shepard Fairey on his Art for a Change site calls the question on one graphic artist for his free usage of work from Cuban, Chinese, WPA, and other sources. Aside from legal issues of plagiarizing work (as would be the case with living artists or those with active legal estates), the broader ethical questions of appropriate methods for using such source material are rarely discussed among artists. Note that parody is a protected practice, but that otherwise copying art is unethical and illegal regardles of whether or not the image is copyrighted. Note that the U.S. Copyright Law allows for certain exceptions, the most notable being Fair Use (for more, see the excellent summaries and links from Stanford University Library ). Alternate forms for encouraging "good" and discouraging "bad" use include CopyLeft and Creative Commons, but such efforts have antecedents in New Left publications during the early 1970s.

There are many situations, however, when using preexisting art makes sense. Many political posters recycle vibrant images form the past and make them current. Such homages are common, but alas, credit is rarely given. Below are some suggestions for using other art.

1. Admit that you are using preexisting art.
This happens when you trace, scan, Web grab, or otherwise use someone else's distinctive or substantial design element into your own art. This is often rationalized, and can be a matter of interpretation and judgement. It's one thing to copy a few of Posada's skulls to embellish a border, it's another to wholesale lift an entire illustration and use it as your main image. When you do copy something, note where you found it - which URL or magazine article gave it up for you. One easy way to keep track of this information is to drop your citation into Photoshop's "File info."
2. Anticipate the exposure of the piece. Even if you are just making a neighborhood flyer or obscure blog entry, images can spread like wildfire these days. It's always the right thing to give credit when due.
3. Do your research. Where did the image come from? Determining this can often be quite difficult, and many artists (wrongly) assume that it's unknowable. But a little research can go a long way. Start with a few Google Image searches, using various terms that might bring up identical or related pictures. If that fails, turn to other design peers. A final step is to check with art historians - this can include art librarians, authors, and academics who are versed in the subject. An e-mailed attachment query to the right person will reveal who did it, when, and where.
4. Ask for permission. This is probably the hardest step, for many reasons - deadline, difficulty in reaching people, ego, legal concerns - but do it if possible. If what you are doing is respectful and appropriate, you will often find the other artist more than accommodating. Remember, we're a community.
5. Give specific credit on the final piece. This is important for all items, including ones that have drifted into that giant grab-bag we call the "public domain." Don't contribute to our own historical amnesia and cultural imperialism. Say something about where it's from. This can be as simple as a credit line at the bottom in small type. Note the examples below:
$acred motherhood - posterMayDay 2005 - poster
Credit text for Red Pepper Posters (Barbara Morgan) and original artist in small type along bottom of poster
$acred motherhood poster detail
Walter Crane's logo and publication date on left, revision artist's name (Jos Sances) and date on right
May Day 2005 poster detail

This article written in the spirit of encouraging respectful image use. Comments and suggestions should be directed to author lcushing "at"

return to
Docs Populi - Documents for the Public
last updated 12/1/2007