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?
(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)
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
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.
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
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.