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Design Desk | Copyright Conflict

How to protect yourself from copyright infringement and violations

My uncle is a self-taught photographer. He built his own portrait studio from the ground up to become one of the most respected and prolific studios in the area, with contracts for a number of local schools and educational programs. A number of years ago he recounted a story of a customer who tried to take some wedding portraits to the photo counter at a superstore to get more prints made and was turned away because he hadn't authorized them to produce the prints. The resulting debate on permissions and photography rights has stuck with me ever since.

The Associated Press's lawsuit versus Shepard Fairey's infamous Obama poster is one of the most well-known legal cases of photographic copyright. For more well-known and recent examples of copyright battles, read this article from How Design.

The fact is, as creative professionals, we have to guard our work jealously, especially if we are putting it online or giving it to others to use. We want to protect the work that we have done and make sure we're given credit and compensation. But it's just as easy for us to be guilty of creative theft. Of course, we all look to other works as inspiration, and we might seek to evoke a similar feel or style to another person's work, but there are limitations to what is considered acceptable.

I follow a lot of other artists and illustrators on social media and occasionally will come across a share or a post about brands like Forever21, Zara, H&M or other fashion outlets blatantly copying an artist's work in their retail products without appropriate credit. In many cases the fault was not with the decision makers of the brand but the design teams in charge of those products, who didn't expect to get called out on creative theft.

Image and illustrations are not the only examples of copyright theft out there. A lot of designers and professionals don't know the ins and outs of intellectual property rights, which can include things like fonts, images, and copy itself. Misuse of any of these elements can land you in serious hot water, especially if you are a retailer or creating something to sell for profit. Make sure you do adequate research or have the appropriate permissions and, if you are ever in doubt of whether or not something is okay to use, err on the side of caution!

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