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What has Hogarth ever done for the digital artist? - The Open College of the Arts
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What has Hogarth ever done for the digital artist?

Gin Lane By William Hogarth [From reprint c.1880] Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3494594

The question of copyright is one that has recently perplexed the student forum: a tangle of legal, moral and financial issues. Creative talent occupies quite a rare position in society, one deemed worthy of automatic protection against duplication and exploitation. In a series of blog posts I will attempt to clarify three related issues: the capture of images that may infringe copyright, the use of other people’s images as illustrations and the appropriation and altering of artworks to produce ‘new’ work.

St. Petersburg image © Alamy/D Trillo

The aim is not to set out definitive answers about what to do, or not to do – if that were possible – but to stimulate debate about what creative effort entails, what the products are and how the results can be used. In these posts I am quoting ‘U.K.’ laws (even though they don’t exist).¹ Students from outside the UK will find some useful information and ideas here, although you will need to check out your own laws as they may differ substantially. For example in France, ironically the ‘home’ of street photography, it’s now illegal to photograph (identifiable) people in the street. While in the USA many of their most famous buildings – such as the Chrysler Building in New York and those famous ‘HOLLYWOOD’ letters – are copyrighted.²

I’ll start by looking at producing images that may breach copyright laws. While this might be assumed to apply only to photography copyright applies to any artwork, even when copied or adapted into a different medium (a topic I’ll return to in a later post).  Copyright regulations for non-visual specialisms (e.g. creative writing and music) are clearer: samples of just a few seconds of music can breach copyright and only small parts of written works can be quoted. Of course students of any discipline will want to include images on their blogs, if only for illustrative purposes. Let’s start with a few questions to explore the issues:

Q Is it legal to photograph or draw in a public space such as a railway station?

Piccadilly Station 2017 © D Trillo

A It is usually allowed, although not for commercial purposes without permission. It should never cause an obstruction and the property owners’ rules should be made public (either physically or online) for you to follow. It is technically illegal to photograph a station or dockyard, or any area likely to be of value to an ‘enemy’ (The Official Secrets Act 1911). If you follow the owners’ own guidelines you should be fine, if not then you are trespassing.

Q Are the ‘ambient’ sounds heard on the street or in public spaces copyrighted?

Street performers © Alamy/D Trillo

A Any creative works that are copied or recorded are subject to copyright, even music or TV heard in the background. In the BBC podcast ‘Copyright or Wrong’ (2018), Richard Taylor In this podcast explores the intricacies and application of copyright laws to a range of contexts – listen to the full podcast here https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/b08md9xf

Q Does copyright belong to the creator for their lifetime, or forever, or for a fixed period from the work’s creation?

A Unless the author signs away or sells their rights, copyright belongs to the author during their lifetime. Thereafter it belongs to their heir(s) or trust until the 70th anniversary of the author’s date of death. After that it is ‘out of copyright’. This was why was there an upsurge in performances of plays by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett in the 1980s, as their copyright expired in the 1970s.

Q Is a work that’s ‘out of copyright’ fair game for anyone to use?

A Not necessarily, as other ‘copies’ may pre-date your version, which could confuse the issue. In order to differentiate a copy of an (out of copyright) original from a later copy works can be specifically attributed to the original, e.g. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film titled ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’. The inclusion of the original (out of copyright) book’s title and author avoids any suggestion that they copied earlier Dracula films that were still within their copyright period. Make sure your attribution/citation explicitly names your sources (as we hope you’ll do in any student work).

Q Can you photograph buildings and sculptures in public spaces?

Cinemanova © D Trillo 2008

A Yes, in publicly owned spaces e.g. public roads and footpaths. Private properties where the public are allowed, such as in shopping malls are still private property (this is usually signposted by notices at entrances).

Q Can you reproduce an artwork if you own it?

A Many artworks are sold as an object, without the copyright, thus separating the collection of art from the commercial worth of reproductions. So it is possible to own something without the right to reproduce copies of it. 

…and if you’re still wondering about Hogarth… he found etchings of his paintings were being copied and sold cheaper than his agents were selling authorised copies. He petitioned parliament to introduce a restriction on the right to copy artists’ work: hence the broadening of copyright laws beyond the 1710 ‘Statute of Anne’ that applied to books. 

Next time I will be posting on how and where we view original artworks and how the advent of digital 2.0 technologies has changed attitudes to copyright. In the third post I’ll be looking at the appropriation of artworks into new forms, the ‘recycling’ of other people’s artwork into something that is partly theirs and partly your own. 

Useful links to information

The U.K photographer’s rights guide covers similar ground as well as more general copyright and is easy to read and follow. 


In addition to the list of places where photography is prohibited, under section 34C of the Prison Act 1952 taking photographs or making sound-recordings inside a prison isn’t allowed.

An overview by the Association of Photographers covers use of your images elsewhere.  https://www.the-aop.org/information/copyright-4-clients

OCA photography BA students can apply for AOP membership via the UCA site > BA Photography > online degree. More info in this post: https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/free-aop-student-membership/8128 This allows you to access a copy of ‘Beyond the Lens’, which is a really helpful guide. Go to http://dataware.the-aop.org/Students-Join

It is worth noting the other two legal aspects that are similar to copyright: Trademarks and patents. A trademark™ is a commercial ’signature’: a logo, symbol, or even a specific colour associated with a particular producer or retailer, e.g. each UK supermarket has their own distinctive colour used on their logo and throughout their stores. Patents are applied to inventions to discourage attempts to copy the original creative work, and to provide legal protection against breaches of these laws.

¹ English & Welsh laws form one system, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate legal systems (although they don’t appear to differ too much in this specific area).  ‘UK’ laws may change post-Brexit (one E.U. law grants everyone the right to photograph buildings and sculpture in public spaces), but these protections will (hopefully) continue after Brexit.

² They cannot be photographed commercially without payment.


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Posted by author: Derek Trillo

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