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Be the cat. Not the copycat.

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Theft, appropriation, ripping off, stealing, borrowing, imitating… If you are copying someone else’s work and intellectual property it’s illegal to do this and profit from it as a result.

To take an image from another person and present that image as your own creation is wrong. You are being a copycat and, if caught, could land in hot water a.k.a. a lot of trouble.

Today it can certainly feel like it’s hard to come up with something which hasn’t already been done before! When creating your work, think your idea through using the creative spiral. Be inspired by what other people have created, but extend upon it and produce something entirely new, whilst still giving credit to where that idea originally came from.


“Copying skips the understanding. Understanding is how you grow. You have to understand why something works, or why something is the way it is. When you just copy and paste, you miss that.” 

(Taken from Rework, by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson)


Copyright Logo 

What is copyright?

Once a person draws or creates something it is covered by copyright. You own your creation. As long as it is your own, original artwork you have exclusive rights over its use and distribution.

But, copyright does not last forever. Original work will have the following copyright period:

  • Artistic works, sound recordings and film: 50 years beyond the death of the author
  • Commercialised works of craftsmanship: 25 years
  • Commercialised product designs and casting moulds: 16 years


Why do people violate copyright?

There are three reasons as to why people steal other people’s stuff.

  1. Price. They don’t want to buy it legitimately.
  2. Availability. They can’t get it, or it’s not yet available in their country so they resort to getting it illegally. Have you ever pirated or downloaded a movie or TV series like The Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead? If you have, then you, like many others, are in violation of copyright.
  3. Anonymity. They think they won’t get caught. Lots of people steal content from the internet or get caught out downloading content from a website that has stolen somebody else’s work.


What are the penalties?

If you are found to have infringed copyright, the owner of the work can, and most likely will, bring legal action against you. This is to recover damages or profits lost by themselves, the original artist, as a result of your theft. If you have made, sold or distributed any copies of their work, you could be fined up to $150,000 and sent to prison for up to five years!


Okay. So how to I avoid copyright infringement?


  1. Understand the law. Copyright basically covers and protects any original creation. This includes literary works, paintings, photographs, drawings, film, music, choreography and sculpture. It does not cover ideas or facts.
  2. Always give appropriate credit to your sources. It’s simple common courtesy.
  3. Don’t take anything from the Internet. Content on the internet is also covered by copyright whether or not it has a ©copyright symbol on it.


How do I copyright my own work?

Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to put a valid copyright notice or © icon on your work for it to be covered by copyright law. You receive copyright as soon as you create your work – as long as your work is original, it comes from you (the creator), and is not copied.


Walking the fine line.

So what’s the fine line between taking inspiration from an artist you truly admire and actual copyright violation? It’s a tricky one to get your head around and has seen lots of artists, photographers, designers and even well known businesses, get into trouble.

Clothing company Hallensteins vs John Radford is a well-known New Zealand copyright case. Hallensteins used a photograph of a sculpture by an Auckland artist, John Radford, on one of their t-shirts. His artwork was commercialized with no permission or payment given to the artist by the company.


Hallensteins t-shirt beside sculpture

 ©Photograph by Kenny Rodger


John took Hallensteins to court, but the clothing company won the case. Under section 73 of the New Zealand 1994 Copyright Act, any permanent work by artists displayed within public places can be photographed and have this two dimensional image used to make a profit. Read more.

And, how many of you remember the New York artist dubbed #PrinceofAppropriation?


Prince of Appropriation images in gallery

©Rob McKeever, Gagosian Gallery


Richard Prince took other people's images from Instagram without permission. He made small edits to them (adding his own comment below each of the shots) making a profit of $90,000 and upwards for each image he sold!

Prince has remained relatively unscathed in court despite his copyright violations, even after being sued by the images owners, due to a 'fair-use' ruling back in 2013. In response, one of the original artists decided to sell hers for a fraction of the cost, rendering his copy less valuable to the person who bought it.


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Find out more about copyright law in New Zealand here. If you’re interested (and not put off by lengthy, legal jargon) take a look at New Zealand’s Copyright Act 1994

As knowledge of copyright is an issue that concerns many of our students, The Learning Connexion bought together a panel of experts for a discussion on-site. This talk featured Matt McGregor from Creative Commons, Courtney Johnston from The Dowse Gallery, Ruth Korver and Dan Wilkinson, both from TLC. 

Listen to the panel’s podcast

Find out more about copyright, creative commons and where to source copyright free images from here.


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