Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Infringement, or Fair Use? Have a look.


As regular readers of this blog know, I contend with a great deal of unwanted commercial copying of my photographs. Most are unambiguous infringements: pest control companies pasting my photos onto their coupons, for example.

But the copyright line gets fuzzier when artists trace my photographs into various derivatives. Copyright law in the United States allows some types of downstream copying under its Fair Use provisions, especially when the copies are used as satire, commentary, or the images are sufficiently modified from the original so as to be transformative. How modified is enough? Well, that's a gray area, and courts have unhelpfully decided these cross-medium cases in both directions.

To illustrate this ambiguity with real-world examples, here are four recent instances where my photographs have been adapted without permission. I have chosen these particular cases because, under various conceptions of copyright, different people may reasonably reach different conclusions.

Infringement? Or Fair Use?

1. The Stock Drawing

source: Stock illustration sold at Dreamstime, by Iskudraite.

2. The Children's Book Illustration

Source: an interior illustration by Emma Stevenson for the book Killer Ants.

3. The Street Artist

Source: Street art in Burlington, Vermont. Artist unknown, photographed by "Metal-Bender" at DeviantArt.

4. The Bizzaro Fly

Source: the header panel for Sunday's Bizarro, a syndicated comic strip by Dan Piraro.

I have my own opinions, of course. I will share these, and their resolutions, in a subsequent post. Before then, I'd like to hear what you think.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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