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Suppose that an artist wants to sell arts/paintings on sites like Etsy. Suppose that the intended paintings are stylized paintings of popular celebs.

Would doing so be an infringement of copyright? What legal issues might be involved?

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Maybe

Permission may or may not be needed under two different kinds of laws, depending on the specific jurisdiction (not stated in the question), and the specific facts.

Right of Publicity

In some, but not all, US states, and in some, but not all non-US jurisdictions, there is such a thing as a "Right of Publicity" also known as a "right of personality" or "right to prevent appropriation of identity". This right allows a person to control how his or her likeness or appearance, and also the person's name, are commercially exploited. This right covers the use of a person's image for advertising. In some but not all jurisdictions it also covers selling images of the person. It is most often invoked by celebrities, but can be invoked by anyone whose image could be so exploited. However it does not cover the use of an image for news reporting (at least not in New York State).

If the artist works in a jurisdiction that recognizes this right, permission to use the subject's appearance must be obtained. Otherwise the subject could sue for damages. Permission may be denied, or granted on whatever terms the subject chooses, and may involve a fee or royalty.

If the artist works in a jurisdiction that does not recognize this right, permission for such use is not required.

In some jurisdictions any Right of Publicity ends with the subject's death, in others it lasts for a limited time (often 5-10 years). See the article linked above.

Trademark protection

Some celebrities register their names and/or images as trademarks for additional protection. This would prevent anyone from lawfully using the mark to advertise or endorse goods or services, but probably would not protect against a stand-alone image not used to advertise anything nor to identify any goods or services. Note: most people, even most celebrities, do not register such a trademark.

Copyright

If a picture is created (drawn, painted, or in any other medium) based on an existing work that is protected by copyright, such as a photograph or video, it will be a derivative work of the original, and the permission of the copyright holder would be required. The holder may refuse permission or charge any fee or royalty s/he pleases and can get the artist to agree to.

However, copyright does not protect ideas, including the idea of a particular person's image. If an artist is able to observe a particular person directly, the artist may depict that person without any permission being required (at least in the US). If an artist uses several different source images from different creators, and does not base a new image primarily on any one of them, the image is probably not a derivative work, and no permission will be needed. If the artist is in the US, and the derived work is different in purpose and function, and does not compete with the original, it may be fair use. (For example, a painting based on a person's appearance in a broadcast news report.) Fair use can be tricky, and always depends on the specific facts of the case. It is well beyond the scope of an answer here to predict if a particular use will be held to be a fair use. The only way to know for sure is to be sued and have a court decide, although an opinion from an experienced copyright lawyer would be reasonably persuasive.

Also fair use is a specifically US legal concept, and does not apply anywhere else. Other countries have other exceptions to copyright, some quite narrow and specific (such as an exception for news reporting) and some rather broad (such as the "fair dealing" exception in the UK). What will fall under any exception must be determined in light of the law of a particular country, and of the specific facts of the matter.

Torts

It should be noted that violations of the right of publicity, infringements of trademarks, and infringements of copyrights are all torts. That is, they only way in which they are enforces is through the private suits of rights-holders. If the rights-holder in any particular case does not know of the violation, or does not choose to sue, perhaps beause it might be more costly in time or money than the damages would justify, then there will be no enforcement. This is not something potential infringer ought to rely on, but it should be taken into account.

Conclusion

In short, what permissions are needed depend on the jurisdiction in which the artist works (country and state or province in some countries) and on how any picture is derived from a source. There cannot be any final answer about personality rights without knowing the jurisdiction, and there cannot be any final answer about copyright without knowing details about how an image would be creates, as well as the jurisdiction.

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  • It generally won't be a violation of copyright and will only extremely rarely be a trademark violation, but it might be a right of publicity violation.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 19:30
  • @ohwilleke In those jurisdictions that recognize a right of publicity, it probably will be, unless permission is obtained, although in some places the right of publicity extends only to using a name or image for marketing. I believe that is the law in NY state, which is a significant jurisdiction. Where that is the law, the proposed undertaking would not be unlawful. And of course the right of publicity is a tort law, dependent on private suits for enforcement. Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 19:35
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First, you need permission from the subject to commercially exploit their image. There are licensing agencies that simplify that process. Then you need to need paintings to sell. I assume you do the artwork yourself, so what you need is a model (e.g. a photograph). As far as copyright is concerned, whoever creates an image holds the copyright, so you need their permission (another license). The image-exploitation license might encompass your intended product, but expect your artwork to be subject to review / approval by the subject. You should also consider taxes and business licenses.

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    This answer is overly definite. Rights of personality exist in some jurisdictions but not others. Not all images of an actual person are derivative works, and some that are fall under fair use. Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 16:20

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