Creativity, Copyrights & Reusable Art

Did you know that when old artwork falls out of copyright, that you can use that same artwork for new crafts that can be given away, traded, or even sold? That’s good news for scrapbookers, stationers, collage makers, mixed media artists and anyone else who needs a steady supply of interesting pictures for their work.

First a few words about what copyright means. Copyrights are given to the creator of a work the moment that work is first published. The idea is to allow the creator to enjoy the appropriate compensation and accolades for their endeavors. The length the creator of a work and his/her descendants enjoy copyright protection varies from country to country.

Copyrights were never truly intended to create ownership forever. According to a gentleman at the US Copyright office that I spoke with recently, copyrights are not forever and the intent is that the creative works will be built upon to create something even greater. Which means that once a creative work is no longer under copyright protection it can be freely used however an artist sees fit.

The trick with determining if a previously published work is protected by copyright is that a work that is copyright free in one country may still be protected by a copyright in another country. What that means is that if a piece is copyright free in the United States, it can be used to create a new piece of art in the United States and the new resulting artwork can be sold in the US. However, that same new artwork may not be sold in England if the original piece that inspired the new work still enjoys copyright protection in the United Kingdom.

The United States has copyright laws that state that any work published prior to 1923 (does not include the year 1923) is no longer under copyright protection and may be used in any way, shape or form. The spirit of the law is that modern artists will take that early work and build upon it; not simply republish the work, unchanged, using their own name.

Some countries grant copyrights to the original creator of the work for their lifetime plus 70 years; this is slowly becoming something of an international standard, though some countries add 5 additional years. What that means is that a work published in 1910 by an author who lived until 1950 may be copyright free in the United States but fully under copyright protection in other countries.

If only all of the world’s countries could come up and agree with a common copyright policy, it would make it so much easier for everyone. That said, it does appear the lifetime plus 70 or 75 ideal is gaining ground among many countries and there are some major treaty-type agreements that are moving things in that direction.

The problem is there are always exceptions and those exceptions vary by the country of origin of what are usually very valuable copyrights to own. In the UK, the issue is Peter Pan; in the US, it’s Mortimer Mouse (better known as Mickey Mouse). The lifetime plus 70 years ran out on Peter Pan last December. The original author, JM Barrie bequeathed all the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929. While there are some actions that are being taken to protect that charitable gift and copyright in the UK; for most other countries, Peter Pan will become public domain or copyright free this year.

Many believe current US copyright law has been designed to protect “The Mouse”. It is something of a conundrum. If someone creates a character so lasting in it’s appeal, should the original creator and their descendants be granted some sort of special status to protect the value of that work? If anyone and everyone could suddenly create films, music, artwork, and written work using Mickey Mouse – would it not lead to the potential of damaging the ‘brand’ that is all things Mickey?

No matter what your thoughts are about copyrights, some original creative works are simply no longer copyrighted and are now in the public domain. With such wonderful organizations like Project Gutenberg bringing original works to the public for everyone to enjoy, copyright free/public domain works are enjoying a renewed energy as they are seen by new generations. Much of what is being released on that site is 100% copyright free in the United States and elsewhere. While examples like Peter Pan and Mickey Mouse make me question the idea of things “falling out of copyright”, it is bringing new life to works that have not been seen for 100 years.

Many of the old print publications that Project Gutenberg is bringing to the Internet included beautiful drawings, paintings, maps and other illustrations inside the books, periodicals and other printed works being published anew. Until recently, these artistic works only lived inside the few dusty copies of the original works they appeared in.

Finally, we come to the part about why this is so very exciting for crafters. There are numerous websites that are collecting pieces and parts of the public domain works published on Gutenberg.org. Some are simply publishing everything, some are publishing just the children’s stories, the poetry, or some other category of works. From the best that I could tell, no one was honoring and collecting the original artwork so many of these materials contain.

Many of today’s most popular crafts incorporate Victorian and other old images. Some crafters are able to create their own original artwork. Some are using collage techniques and using artwork from their own collection of old advertisements, magazines, and children’s books. Some are creating new works that other artists can purchase to use in their own pieces.

Crafters and artisans now have a new option for finding old-fashioned artwork to use on their modern-day arts and crafts projects – Reusable Art!

What is Reusable Art? Reusable Art is a new and growing website that is compiling much of the artwork from these early publications that have since gone out of copyright and offering them to artists in one convenient location. The intent is to further the spirit of creativity and art by making these works of art available to be expanded upon by new artisans.

ReusableArt.com is being built by me – a crafter. Each image is evaluated for quality (is it too fuzzy or grainy to truly be useful), interest (it looks to me like something someone would maybe have a use for) and topic. I plan to continually add more copyright free images to the collection in the existing categories and to create more categories as I post the Reusable Artwork I find. For now, the following categories are already being populated with free downloadable images for crafters :

Free Animal Images
Free Alphabets & Letters – a collection of alphabets, sets of letters and individual letters that are perfect for drop caps
Free Bird Images
Free Building Images
Free Images of People
Free Image Sets

The Alphabets & Letters Category currently has the most images, but all of the categories above have at least one image. I have a huge collection of images to include and will continue gathering them and posting them on hopefully a daily basis.

Any image appearing on Reusable Art is fully copyright free in the United States – all artwork appeared in printed materials printed prior to 1923. Artists who create public works (pieces for sale or to be published) in the United States may do so freely. All artwork on Reusable Art lists the original print publication name, illustrator (if known), the illustrator’s birth and death years, and publication date to enable artists in other countries to determine the copyright status in their country prior to creating public works.

Clarification & Update (02/13/08) – After doing more research and making several phone calls, I have learned that the vast majority of the countries of the world use the death plus 70 years standard for copyright duration. (Learn more about International Copyrights & Reusable Art) I have since updated Reusable Art to only contain images that meet or exceed this standard.

Additionally, works that contain illustrations where the illustrator is not identified fall under the work for hire classification. Work for hire is protected for 95 years after creation or 120 years after publication; whichever is shorter. Reusable Art will only publish work for hire illustrations that were published over 120 years ago to ensure that the copyright has truly expired.

Keep in mind copyright status extends to the place an item is being sold, not it’s country of origin. American artists will need to confirm the artwork is copyright free in other countries prior to selling their works outside of the United States.

I am quite excited to bring so many wonderful illustrations to the public and honor their original creators. When you visit Reusable Art, you will find artwork created and published long before the days of computers and modern day art materials. When you realize the limitations of printing technology at the time of original publication, it makes some of the artwork all the more amazing. Much of the work is quite lovely and could easily be printed and framed as is.

Please visit ReusableArt.com and let me know what you think; either here or via the contact form on the site.

I hope to add some simple tutorials and projects to give artists ideas of how to use the artwork found on the site. If anyone would like to contribute a tutorial that uses one or more of the images found on the site, I would be glad to publish the tutorial on Reusable Art and give you space for a short bio of yourself, your website, and your business. I would also mention your contribution on this blog to give you even more exposure in return for your time.

A few suggestions for further reading...

One Response to Creativity, Copyrights & Reusable Art

I never knew this about copyright law–thanks for letting me know.


Comment by alison on

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