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I have heard in the past that editing an image to make it significantly different than its original form will allow you to use it without worrying about copyright laws. Is this true?

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    In what jurisdiction? – David Richerby Aug 3 '15 at 13:17
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    You're on very shaky ground with any "can I avoid copyright by...?" or "Can I use X without paying?" questions. I would recommend against any attempt to circumvent the law, especially when you are trying to reduce the income of a content generator. – AJFaraday Aug 3 '15 at 14:00
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    You might be able to get a good answer on the Law StackExchange (law.stackexchange.com), as well. – mfrankli Aug 3 '15 at 14:16
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    Recently in the US there was a major story about Richard Lewis "appropriating" other peoples Instagram pics, making transformative changes and then selling them for $$$$. See businessinsider.com/… for a discussion. – Peter M Aug 3 '15 at 19:29
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    If you can transform a pickle into a slice of pizza and wings with no pickle resemblance via Photoshop then by all means you are fine. If you simply add a slice of pizza and wings next to the pickle then you must credit/pay the author of the pickle. – MonkeyZeus Aug 4 '15 at 14:01
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(As you havent specified a country, I will assume UK, others will likely be similar or the same)

According to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (https://www.copyrightservice.co.uk/copyright/p01_uk_copyright_law)

Restricted acts

It is an offence to perform any of the following acts without the consent of the owner:

  • Copy the work.
  • Rent, lend or issue copies of the work to the public.
  • Perform, broadcast or show the work in public.
  • Adapt the work.

So in my understanding - No this is not true, you cannot alter an image to get around copyright

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    Probably worth noting too that copyright is not something that can be lost - no matter what you do to an image, the original creator always maintains copyright of their contribution. If you altered an image in any way, even with their permission, they do not lose copyright. In that scenario, you would have copyright over your specific modifications to the image, but that's it. – user1406 Aug 3 '15 at 16:36
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In the United States, the right to make "derivative works" is retained by the original copyright holder. I can't imagine any amount of "editing" done to a work that would render it an original work in the eyes of the law. If, on the other hand, you are merely inspired by the ideas of the work to create something original but similar, that would be fine. Of course, it's up to a civil court to decide where that line is.

  • I guess that, if the editing completely obliterates the original work to the extent that no trace of it remains, the result probably isn't a derivative work. But that's clearly not the intent of the word "edit" in either the question or your answer. – David Richerby Aug 4 '15 at 10:03
  • Using the original piece in a collage might count. For example, taking one of the eyes of Mona Lisa and many other pieces to make your own piece of art. – SailorCire Aug 4 '15 at 14:14
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    The Mona Lisa is safe because it's centuries past any copyright. Generally speaking, US law has not been kind to "remix" culture. – Lee Daniel Crocker Aug 4 '15 at 19:20
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There are situations where repurposing a work is allowed if it is transformative or presents a new aesthetic.

See the case of Cariou v. Prince

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You are referring to "fair use" laws. And no, editing is not covered.

Copyright Law protects "original, creative works of authorship". "Derivative works" are included; so the sequel of my movie or the re-mix of my song or the tv-series based off of my novel are also protected.

The "fair use" doctrine is an exception for works "inspired by" other copyright protected work. So, all of those new "Jedi" spin-off stories are inspired by but don't violate the copyright of George Lucas's Star Wars franchise. Similarly if I have a vampire in my novel, that's fair use as long as my vampire is not named 'Dracula' and have the same implementation as Bram Stoker's version. The exact determination of 'fair-use' is based on a four-factor balancing test as determined by the court.

I find it helpful to think of "fair use" in terms of "shared concepts". If the concept is "Jedi-ness" then Star Wars is an implementation of that concept; subsequent use of that concept are also original implementations. So, a pointy white race car is fine, but it cannot resemble 'Speed Racer's Mach 5'. A space ship is fine, but it cannot resemble the 'Millennium Falcon'. You can use a muscular army guy with a 50cal machine gun, but it cannot resemble 'Rambo'. If you include the cartoon likeness of George Lucas in your parody of a controversial movie scene, you are protected by fair-use.

While "editing" an image may sound like fair-use, the court does not see it that way. "Significantly different" tends to require "entirely different with trivial resemblances". Adding a green hue to a digital representation of my original work is infringing; even though every pixel is different. If you use the main riff from "Under Pressure" recorded by Queen & David Bowie, but add a single extra symbol crash at the end, you are violating copyright.

Hope that helps.

  • Is the name Dracula covered? It was what real-life people called Vlad Tepes, a Romanian term that has been translated as both "son of the dragon" and "son of the Devil" depending on who's doing the translating. The fictional character of Dracula-the-vampire was inspired by legends about the historical Vlad, so that sounds like something that's not copyrightable... – Mason Wheeler Aug 3 '15 at 17:40
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    @MasonWheeler The novel Dracula is in the public domain in the United States and in signatories to the Berne Convention, so in that particular case it's very unlikely that the name alone would run afoul of any copyright protections. – recognizer Aug 3 '15 at 18:58
  • Reasonably safe now as a work of Public Domain. Nosferatu (1922) changed the name of it's villain to "Count Orlok" fearing copyright violation. Stoker's widow was still around in 1922. But hundreds of other references and remakes since then cite "Dracula", "Van Helsing", and several of the other novel characters. So, perhaps...or perhaps not. Ah ah ah ah ahhhh. (weak Dracula impersonation) – user41777 Aug 3 '15 at 19:06
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    You misunderstand Copyright and Fair Use here: merely re-using the "concepts" of a copyrighted work is OK because copyright only covers creative expression. Ideas are not copyrightable. Character names and titles are not copyrightable. Fair use only applies to uses that would, in fact, violate a valid copyright except that specific exceptions are made for things like education, commentary, and parody. Merely editing a work is likely to be construed as a derivative work, and therefore a violation. – Lee Daniel Crocker Aug 3 '15 at 23:09
  • Lee that is incorrect. The unique expression of a fictional character is protected by copyright. 'Han Solo' and his image, as expressed in the George Lucas (now Disney) films, is protected. But my expression of a 'space smuggler' with a laser gun is fair use. – user41777 Aug 4 '15 at 14:24

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