Copyright law, art and a bee

One of my recent creations, a bee print on the pages of a book, sent me down a path of researching copyright law.

Although I am not a lawyer, being an artist who creates original content, I do know that there are rules around the use of other people’s images (and that includes books) in your own creations.

This blog post is not a complete study of the complex subject of copyright, but rather a lesson I have learned when plowing through information to try to find out about using pieces created by others in my art.

LINDA COTE-Life of Bee pageI have — a couple of times — used sheet music in my printmaking designs and more recently I had an idea about using pages from a book to print on. It’s an idea that is much used in collage art and mixed media. Because my intent was to sell the final product, I knew that I would have to work within copyright laws for the music and book.

To begin with, I am always very careful to use a work that is in the public domain. Public domain is definied by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as being “the realm embracing property rights that belong to the community at large, are unprotected by copyright or patent, and are subject to appropriation by anyone”.

LINDA COTE-Canadian Songbird 2My “Canadian Songbird” print is one of those. I used, as a background, the sheet music for our national anthem “O Canada” which is in the public domain.

I would have loved to use “Blackbird” by Paul McCartney, but he still holds the copyright to the song, thus I cannot use it — not even an image of the sheet music — because it is protected under the “fair use” section of copyright law that states derivative works cannot be made using the work.

There is much information in this area, and here is a link to information for my country on Canadian copyright law.

I also found an amazing resource I wanted to pass along because it is so fabulous. And free. It is the ipl2, a transformation of the prior Internet Public Library that is a “Virtual Learning Laboratory for Digital Reference”. (Update July 2015: So sad to see that the IPL2 website is no longer available. There are some tips, though, on doing your own research here.)

It’s a public service where students and volunteer library/information science professionals gather references online. They also answer specific reference questions for free. At the top of their home page, they have an “Ask an ipl2 Librarian” button so anyone can submit a question that has to do with internet research.

I wanted to print my bee design on the pages of the book I purchased called “The Life of the Bee” by Maurice Maeterlinck. I was not entirely sure it was in the public domain, even though it was originally published in 1901, and works typically fall into the public domain some 50-75 years after being published, if the copyright has not been extended. To make sure of the copyright before selling copies of the cards I intended to make, I turned to the ipl2 and asked one of their librarians.

LINDA COTE-ipl2 answerThe answer took about a week, but it came in all its referential glory (click on the excerpt at left to view it larger). The answer was about 10 paragraphs long, and contained the answer I was hoping for: “The Life of the Bee” is indeed in the public domain.

The answer then went on to outline, in great detail, sources consulted, sites scrutinized and references cross-referenced (complete with hotlinks I could view for myself). Pretty fine service for free!

As you may have guessed, I would highly recommend this service to anyone looking for answers on the web, and who would love access to the skills of a master researcher. I’ve used the ipl2 a couple of times, and it is invaluable.

So, here, I can now present to you my “Vintage Bee” greeting card, printed on the lovely, aging pages of the book “The Life of the Bee”.

LINDA COTE-Book and bee

I found this lovely 1901 edition from a used book store in Ontario. I have such a reverence for old books, it took me several days to work up the guts to cut into it with a razor blade.

LINDA COTE-Bee pages and block

Several pages cut and waiting for printmaking. The bee was designed and hand carved in my traditional way, on a soft linoleum block.

LINDA COTE-bee inking

I ink up my glass table with a lovely burnt sienna ink, and roll it over the block.

LINDA COTE-bee print

The print is pulled, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. The sienna ink with the brown-with-age pages really go together.

LINDA COTE-bee cards

Here are the cards lined up in my studio, waiting packaging. I adore bees, and in our snowy March, I am looking forward to seeing some soon in our garden!

LINDA COTE-Vintage BeeVINTAGE BEE 5″ x 7″ Greeting Card (blank inside).

I will be selling these (and other) cards at my spring art sales, and in my Etsy shop. I’ll also get them around to the galleries and shops that carry my work soon.


10 responses to “Copyright law, art and a bee

    • Thanks, Terri! I have spent a fair bit of time looking at copyright, so I felt I shouldn’t hold it to myself. And the ipl2 is an amazing service — definitely worth sharing!

  1. Really interesting to read another angle on copyright issues. With photography it is always a hot topic; probably one of the reasons I like commercial work as you sell the rights with the files.

  2. Hello
    I loved your bee article and have intact done something similar here in the UK.

    I too have been worried about copywrite of using pages from books but have never been able to find an answer. So am I correct in thinking all books pre 1926 would be safe to use?
    Great to meet you too 🙂

    • Hi Jules, thanks for reading the blog! I’m afraid it’s not just a simple calculation of ‘years gone by’ but a combination of that, plus whether or not descendants of the person who created the ‘works’ have extended the copyright at any time (which definitely does occur). Not being a lawyer, I’m not sure of all the nuances of copyright. It’s probably best to search online whatever title you are using and see if it is in the public domain. And, if you are in doubt, try the IPL service I mentioned. It’s free and open to everyone! Also, I think from some of my reading, there is a distinction about whether you are creating art just for yourself, or selling that art that uses book pages to the public. Good luck, and thanks for your question!

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