View Full Version : Buying photo rights for painting & selling further on?

11-29-2013, 09:16 AM
Hi Guys,

I have been wondering on a copyright question whose answer I am not able to find on google or on WC. Hope someone here can help:

1. I buy basic rights of a photo off an online prominent stock seller (istock/shutterstock)
2. I paint and the painting looks farily similar to the photo
3. Someone wants to buy the painting
4. Because I bought the basic rights to the photo, am I breaking a law(moral & legal) if I am selling the painting without giving credit to the photographer?

11-29-2013, 12:06 PM
I would contact the stock seller and ask them this question. As far as I understand it (I have never bought any stock images) there are different levels and agreements that stock photography is sold under.

Again, I have never actually bought any stock images, but after a quick look over the Shutterstock site, I think the photographer retains the copyright. If this is the case, then I think you need to give the photographer more than just credit - I think you need to get their permission if you sell the painting. (I think they are usually happy to give it). This would be the strict moral (and possibly) legal thing to do, in my opinion. Of course, unless your painting becomes famous and is sold publicly - no one will ever know - and I'm sure this happens all the time.

Of course, copyright laws are different in different countries, so things may be quite different in Sweden. Plus, I could be completely wrong!

Again, the easiest thing to do is contact the stock photography site via email and ask them directly. In fact, I just sent an email off to the shutterbug site to see what they say.


11-29-2013, 02:27 PM
Thanks Don. Since you've already written to Shutterbug, I wrote to istockphoto asking the same question and am waiting for their reply.
Perhaps if and when you get a reply and if its other than you mention in your post than please share the knowledge. I will do the same.

12-02-2013, 03:58 PM
Google Sheryl Luxenburg - she won the American Watercolor Society gold medal award in 2008 & was later stripped of the medal because the work was based on 2 pieces of stock photography (from shutterstock I believe). She did purchase the rights to those photos but the society disallowed her entry as they were not her own work.

Would she be allowed to sell the work? Most likely. I think that legally, most stock photo sites would consider this fair use. I am a graphic designer by day & use purchased stock photos constantly in advertisements and campaigns for my clients. Using a stock photo as a basis for a painting should, in fact, be even less of an issue, legally. But obviously a society (or even a gallery) make their own sets of rules and this could very well disqualify you.

I also know that many free sites (morguefile.com for example) allow you to actually contact the photographer & get their blessing, but this would still be unusable by most competitions's guidelines.

I understand the appeal of using stock photos. I used to do so years ago, but honestly these days I feel like I need to be involved in the process from start to finish. Not only are you then involved in the composition, lighting and values from start to finish but you also take with you so many key elements you cant see in a photo: The smells, the temperature, was the ground moist? was the model giggling or shy? Was the air crisp? Your experience while taking the photos (should you choose to work from them) are invaluable when you sit down to create your work.

Just my 2 though.

12-03-2013, 02:16 AM
Thanks Justin. Yes very true about being there to experience the environment live.

I received a reply from istockphoto about this and I will copy-paste it here:

"An Extended License (Items for Resale - Limited Run) is required for physical products that use images or illustrations on items for resale. This Extended License permits use of the Content in items for resale, license, or other distribution, including these categories of products:

1.) up to 100,000 cards, stationery items, stickers, or paper products, and
2.) up to 10,000 posters, calendars, mugs, or mousepads, and
3.) up to 2,000 t-shirts, apparel items, games, toys, entertainment goods, bags or framed artwork.

This Extended License will also cover you for creating derivative works (like what you are completing). With this license you can create and sell (or give away) up to 2,000 prints, paintings or reproductions of the artwork from iStock.

Extended Licenses are 125 credits (approximately $200 USD) each for files from our standard collection. With the Standard License, the cost of the license is already included in the cost of the file."

12-03-2013, 09:14 AM
I received a reply from Shutterstock which is similar to the above. You need to purchase an enhanced license (as compared to a standard license) in order to sell a work derived from one of their stock photos. Here's what they said:

the copyright will still belong to the Artist, but you are able to reproduce and modify it, and then re-sell it if you have an Enhanced License.

You still however can not claim copyright.
I do agree with Justin's comments above. Many competitions and shows stipulate that the artist must use their own reference, so that is one reason not to use anyone else's photos. But the bigger reason is that the painting you create from someone else's photo is not totally your own creation. Having used other people's photos for many years when I was in high school and college (we never thought about things like copyright in those days!), you don't feel the same type of satisfaction (and connection to the artwork) as when the entire creative process is your own. That's just my opinion, of course.


12-03-2013, 11:27 AM
I don't know if you know of the site, Paint My Photo. The name explains the purpose of the site. Photographers post their photos for people to use as reference photos for paintings. Here is a link. http://paintmyphoto.ning.com/

The Terms of Service says: Paint My Photo (PMP) is a social networking site dedicated to sharing Photos for artistic inspiration without fear of infringing copyright.
This site is hosted by Ning and their full terms of service are detailed below. In addition please note the following that applies to PMP.
Please consider all photographic material uploaded by members to be under a creative commons attribution non-commercial licence. With the EXEPTION of reproductions of members Artwork. This basically means you cannot download and sell members photos or use them commercially in any way.
You can of course make paintings based on photos and sell them. Please also note this site is for natural media Art only, not digital Artwork. This licensing refers to owned images both regular photos and photos of paintings uploaded by members.
Generally posting lots of paintings is not the focus or intent of this site. The unique value here comes from the generosity of members making photos available. However it is good to see paintings made from members photos! So I hope this clarifies our focus for you.

I hope this helps.


12-03-2013, 12:28 PM
Thanks Don. Its true that nothing beats personal experience of a scene, and that's why plein air painting is loved by so many. Anyway, the extended license is pretty expensive if one intend's creating a painting for other than selling purposes. I guess I will stick to my own photos or those from sites like morguefile.

Thanks for the PMP site address Doug. Its just earlier today that I went and joined that site, looks like there are a lot of very good artists that frequently post their work there. Very interesting indeed.

12-03-2013, 01:12 PM
Yeah, it sounds like I'll do a lot better using a site focused on artists' use than buying stock. Those terms Don mentioned are scary - it means I couldn't claim copyright on my painting? The istockphoto one is worse. I don't want to have to think of size of print run or anything like that if I do a painting. Much better to just use photos where painting permission is given clearly and it's intended by the poster that I'll do my paintings from it.

I'm mostly housebound. There's a lot in this world that I'll never see in person. I've also got a lifetime of memories that I didn't have a camera at the time - where photo and memory combine it starts getting interesting. I used to have the North Light books of photo references. They go into depth about how to use artist's references without violating the photographer's copyright - even how to make composite references to work from if I want to play that long in Gimp to get it right. I'd rather do those adjustments in my head.

WetCanvas is my favorite source, still. The terms are good, the photos great and I usually find what I'm looking for in it. I've also contributed because I feel like I owe it to WC to give some good references back for all the times I've used them here.

Like contest rules, I guess stock photo companies all have their own specific contracts and you have to be careful and read them before using anything. It can get frustrating but that's better than losing a good work to using the wrong source.

The other "other people's photo" situation is when doing a commission. Often the buyer took the photos and the job is making a snapshot in poor lighting look good. They're buying the art, there's no problem about it, but get signed permission about your copyright to your work from their photo and selling prints of it. They need to know if you want to make prints of their pedigreed greyhound or Maine Coon or baby sister.

Sarah Rose
12-05-2013, 11:57 AM
I have found DeviantArt.com to be a good resource, too. There's a lot of photographers on there with the intent of allowing artists to work from their photos. Each person has different terms, some want a small fee, but most don't want anything but to see the finished work and get credit for their photography.

12-05-2013, 12:07 PM
Thanks Sarah, yes that's an awesome source too, went there everyday from my graphic design days :)

12-06-2013, 10:24 PM
Just out of curiosity, how does everyone stand with the reference image library in Wetcanvas in relation to this issue?

12-06-2013, 10:37 PM
I posted a question about that some time ago because someone posted a painting based on a picture in the reference library and they put a copyright symbol on it. I felt since many of us could be doing the same painting, the artist really shouldn't have been able to copyright it. Responses were mixed but from what I see above, the person that took the photo retains copyright. Pam:wave:

12-07-2013, 12:15 PM
Just out of curiosity, how does everyone stand with the reference image library in Wetcanvas in relation to this issue?
Photos submitted to the WC reference library are free to use to create art works with seemingly no restrictions.

The user agreement says the following:

With respect to Content you submit to the Reference Image Library, you grant to all other users of the web site a royalty-free, perpetual, non-exclusive, world-wide, irrevocable right and license to use your uploaded images as reference images in the creation of new artwork in a different medium (such as painting, sculpture, and so on), and to sell the artwork they create pursuant to this license to use the image. You do not grant other users the right to digitally alter the image or to otherwise use or sell the image in its unaltered state. You retain the copyright to the original image.
The photographer retains the copyright of the photo, but it seems like the artist has no restriction in claiming copyright of the artwork produced from the photo. At least that is how I interpret this.

I have sent a follow-up email to Shutterstock asking for a clarification to their statement that:
You still however can not claim copyright.
I have asked them if this refers to the photo or the artwork produced from the photo.


12-09-2013, 04:09 PM
Just got a reply from Shutterstock. They say the copyright belongs to the photographer and/or Shutterstock for the artwork produced from the photo.

Now, in previous discussion regarding copyright and what little I know about it, if an artist substantially changes the photo from which they are working, then it is considered a "new" creation and the artist can't be sued for copyright infringement. The big question is always - what is a substantial change? And who decides - the artist? The photographer?

This is a difficult question to answer, but I think it is a good idea as an artist to avoid this question! While the temptation is there to use beautiful photos we see on stock photo sites - or even in magazines or blogs - we should use these photos only with the photographer's specific permission. Or better still, use our own photographs. Or use photos from our RIL or sites that are specifically set up where the photographer has given permission to use the photos for art reference.

That's my opinion.


12-09-2013, 06:32 PM
I am very interested in the usage of historical photos for reference. I have heard both ways still copyrighted and others say after x years ago its public domain . Any one know?


12-09-2013, 10:54 PM
The problem with copyright questions is that there is no easy answer. I just spent about a half an hour looking up various websites and I am more confused now than before. It depends on many factors, perhaps the most important is - was it published? And if so, when was it published? In some cases it may depend on what country it was published in. The only thing that seems to be fairly specific is:

In the U.S., any work published before January 1, 1923 anywhere in the world is in the public domain. Other countries are not bound to that 1923 date, though.
This quote is from a Wikipedia page on Public Domain, which can be found here:



12-09-2013, 11:14 PM
The problem with copyright questions is that there is no easy answer. I just spent about a half an hour looking up various websites and I am more confused now than before. It depends on many factors, perhaps the most important is - was it published? And if so, when was it published? In some cases it may depend on what country it was published in. The only thing that seems to be fairly specific is:

This quote is from a Wikipedia page on Public Domain, which can be found here:



Not to mention the fact that copyright infringement, when using reference photos is almost never acted upon. Honestly if you're not entering a contest with a work, or putting it in a juried show, you may never have issues.

In the extremely rare cases where we have seen someone act on this its been almost always one of two situations:

1) the work depicts a celebrity in a negative light
2) the work sells tons and tons of copies & the "subject" wants his or her cut.

In both cases, its almost always a painting of a "person" not a place or a thing because the latter is so much more difficult to prove. For example: you google "Venice." You get 100 pictures of venice. You choose one, copy it but move the gondola placement around a little. Chances are, even the photographer won't know its a painting from his photo...

...but you will :)

At the end of the day, there are reasons for using photos that are not your own, just like there are many reasons for only using your own.

As long as you are expressing yourself & communicating creatively, I don't think there's a right or wrong answer - although some shows/contests/galleries may disagree.