Converting Drawings, Photos, and Other Images to Charts

Note: I am not an attorney. The following are generalizations only based on my study of copyright law and are not meant to be construed as legal advice. If you have a question, consult a competent attorney specializing in copyrights and intellectual property law.

Making a chart from a pre-existing piece of art (a painting, sketch, photograph, fresco, etc.) is making a derivative work. Making derivative works is one of the rights granted the copyright holder.

Therefore, if you see an image that you would like to convert to a chart, unless it is very old and its copyright protection has expired (or there is a notation from the copyright holder that the work has been granted to the public domain), you violate copyright statute if you convert it to a chart unless you have permission first. Certain commercial images also have protection, such as the Disney characters. Unless you have permission, you may not chart these images and stay within the limits of the copyright law.

In practice, attorneys say, it is highly unlikely that the lawyers for Disney are going to conduct a house-to- house search to see who has illegally charted Mickey Mouse. If you have done so for your own use to keep in your home, most attorneys would say that you are pretty safe because it is the copyright holder's responsibility to find you and prove that you have violated copyright protection. The water becomes a bit murky if you use this chart to make a gift for someone else. Probably you are OK. The area is grayer still if you make multiple copies (say, a Mickey Mouse picture for all of your children); you may be on shaky ground. You most definitely are if you make multiple copies to sell (as at a crafts show).

What if a guest comes to your home and spies the picture you did of Mickey Mouse and is so enamored of your work that he wishes to buy it from you? This is not legal. In practice, again, it is unlikely that the Disney attorneys would ever find out if you did it once. If you did it more than once....

As you see, it's a question of ethics as well as law. Should you do it if there's little likelihood that you'll get caught? Only you can answer this!

copyright 1996, Martha Beth Lewis
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