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If an artist draws a picture of some famous political figure, who owns the copyright to that image/drawing - the artist or the political figure in the drawing?

What if the artist drew a picture of the political figure in a famous setting (such as a president by his inaugural address) - does that effect anything?

Similarly, what if the artist simply copies a famous scene that was taken with a digital camera and converts it to an almost identical drawing?

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    Note that while the question asks about copyright, the subject of the drawing may have legal rights other than those arising in copyright. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality_rights or may itself be a work of art protected by copyright making the artist's version a derivative work.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 15:49

4 Answers 4

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The artist is always the initial owner of the copyright unless, under US law, the artist was hired to do the drawing under circumstances which make it a "work made for hire". This requires a regular employment relationship, or an explicit written contract saying that it is for a work made for hire. In the US this makes the employer the original owner, and then legal author. That is not true in most other countries. In many countries the natural person who creates a work is the author, even if by contract the copyright is immediately transferred to the author's employer. This matters because the author's life is used to measure the copyright term. In the US a work-made-for-hire has a fixed term (of 95 years from publication, or 120 from creation, whichever ends sooner), not measured by anyone's life.

However, once the work has been created, the artist may sell or give away the copyright, including to the subject, if s/he so chooses.

However, although the subject does not normally own the copyright, the subject may have relevant "rights of publicity" which may limit what the artist can do with the drawing. In particular, using it to advertise anything may be unlawful unless the subject's permission is obtained. Whether such rights exist at all, and exactly whatn they cover, varies significantly by jurisdiction. Inn the US this varies by state.

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  • Thanks for your reply. Upvoted. Just to make sure I understood correctly: using it to advertise anything may be unlawful unless the subject's permission is obtained Is it only unlawful when the drawing is being used as a means to advertise/sell a different product? But it does not prevent the owner from selling the drawing/painting itself for profit?
    – S.O.S
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 1:35
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    @S.O.S no. only is the person has any right to publicity, such is needed. Celebrities actually get less of those, as they are people of public interest. Private citizens in some jurisdictions need to sign a release for photos to appear publicly. Even small actors/extras sign such a release in their work contracts, so that the film can be released globally.
    – Trish
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 14:20
  • @Trish IANAL, but I thought celebrities have more rights to publicity, because their likeness is one of their important professional assets. You may be thinking of public figures (e.g. politicians).
    – Barmar
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 15:12
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    @Barmar No whatever rights of personality a celebrity has, a non-celeb also has. A celebrity's personality rights may have more monetary value, and so are more likely to be taken to court. But the actual rights are the same. Trish is also correct that in some cases persons of public interest (which includes both politicians and entertainment figures) may have less control over their public personas than others would, but personality rights are generally about commercial exploitation of someone's persona in any case. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 16:10
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    @S.O.S Exactly what is protected by personality rights (sometimes called rights of publicity or other terms) varies by jurisdiction and is not always clear. Courts and legislatures have changed the rules on this over time. Using a person's name or image (or voice) to sell a product is most likely to be a violation. Selling the image itself may or may not be. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 16:14
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The author is the initial owner of the copyright, and when the work is made for hire "the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author." See 17 U.S.C. 201

This is true for any "original works of authorship" including "pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works" (17 U.S.C. 102) no matter whether it was a political figure in a famous setting or whether it is based on a scene observed in a digital image.

Your final question contains a complexity though: the drawing that almost identically copies a photograph might not be original; it might also be an infringment.

The answer in Canada is the same, subject to a distinction between initial authorship and ownership.

The "author of the work" is the initial owner of the copyright (Copyright Act, s. 13(1)) unless the author of the work was in "the employment of some other person under a contract of service or apprenticeship and the work was made in the course of his employment by that person" in which case, absent some alternative agreement, the first owner of the copyright is the employer (s. 13(3)).

The Berne Convention also indicates that copyright protection "shall operate for the benefit of the author." So any signatory that is implementing the Berne Convention will vest initial copyright ownership in the author.

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In the first two cases, the artist owns copyright, as stated in this Q&A (replace "photographer" with "artist"). In the third case, the artist owns the copyright to his creation, but has also infringed the copyright of the photographer (it does not matter what kind of camera it is). However, if the picture was taken by an automatic camera that takes a picture at random without any originality, the photo is not copyrighted so there is no infringement.

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  • Your last sentence is interesting - so security camera footage cannot have a copyright ? What about google streetview imagery or satellite photos ? Is this worth a separate question ?
    – Criggie
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 0:29
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    Streetview pictures are taken deliberately – someone chooses to cause the stick to take a picture, if only by driving down that street (and then there is selective blurring). Earth satellite pictures are also a "creative composition (an artistic creation), not just an automatic data dump. The security cam question hasn't been decided: see casetext.com/case/southwest-casino-hotel-corp-v-flyingman-2, where the case fizzled on other grounds and the courts didn't have to decide.
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 0:53
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Broadly speaking, copyright is a reward for creative expression. A painter will generally hold copyright for their paintings, since they are making creative decisions about what and how they are painting. Similarly, a photographer will express creativity through a choice of angles, composition, lighting, exposure settings, and so on.

If a painter reproduces a scene from a photograph, it is likely that the painting will be a derivative work of the photograph – containing copyrightable aspects from both the photographer and the painter. However, it is possible that the painter does not contribute any copyrightable authorship of their own. The author of the original can generally decide whether creation of derivative works are allowed.

The subjects of a photo or of a painted portrait do not contribute any creative expression to the work, and are therefore not a copyright holder. However, there are a variety of different rights that could play a role. For example, the subject might have personality rights that could affect whether the work may be published, but that right might not weigh very strongly for public figures. The owner of the physical medium (e.g. of the painted canvas) has some rights in that object.

All of these rights and their interplay are quite jurisdiction-dependent. In the United States, the US Copyright Office has published a series of circulars and a compendium that discuss details of the US copyright system. For example, section 905 of the compendium discusses when works of visual arts (including paintings and photographs) might be copyrightable.

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    -1 This is significantly incorrect. In US law, copyright is for original works. It is possible;e for a work to be quite uncreative but still original, and thus protected. It is possible for a highly creative work to be unoriginal and thus not protected. Commented Dec 26, 2022 at 23:41
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    “A work must have a minimum amount of creativity over and above the independent creation requirement for getting copyright protection. Works completely lacking in creativity are denied copyright protection even if they have been independently created. However, the amount of creativity required is very little. A work need not be novel, unique or even good to be sufficiently creative. All that is required is that the work be the product of a minimal creative spark. Most work of authorship therefore meets the requirement of “creativity”. Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 2:23
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    @DavidSiegel I don't quite understand your point. US copyright law provides for copyright for “original works of authorship”. Similarly, Berne discusses the “rights of authors in their literary and artistic works”. The goal of my answer is to help OP build intuition about authorship, by describing it as “creative expression”, and contrasting copyright to other rights such as personality or sui generis rights. In the US, a minimal amount of creativity is considered to be core aspect of its originality criterion (compare George White's comment, see also section 308 of the Compendium).
    – amon
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 14:46
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    @supercat Copyright implications of CCTV systems would be a great separate question. My hunch would be that the recordings are not covered by copyright, or that the operator of the system would be the copyright holder.
    – amon
    Commented Dec 27, 2022 at 14:48
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    @DavidSiegel Thanks, that was helpful for understanding these nuances of US copyright law. I fully agree that the degree of creativity does not imply stronger/weaker protection, it's only necessary to clear the low bar of the threshold of originality. Still, I think that communicating this to OP as “originality” is suboptimal since it might have wrong connotations such as “novelty”. “Creativity” is a good first-order approximation that makes it possible to understand why the subject of a portrait cannot be its copyright holder.
    – amon
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 10:53

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