Heavy Metal Madness: Stealing Reddy Kilowatt and Other Tales of Image Theft

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Those of you who are regular readers of this column have discovered by now that I'm really just a big fraud. I write about setting up a vintage print shop but I've yet to print a single page. I know just enough about old printing techniques to sound credible to the uninitiated, but not enough to avoid ridicule from the letterpress cognoscente. And to make matters worse, I'm a thief.

I freely admit that I regularly violate active copyrights, lapsed copyrights, trademarks, and in many cases the spirit of design protection, if not the law. I scan, manipulate and outright copy other people's work, and on occasion even steal a particularly engaging color palette. But the best part is, I've honed my thievery skills so well that I can now share with you some of my favorite techniques.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Before you freak out completely, all of my transgressions are respectful to the artist, and I draw a clear distinction between stealing another's work for non-commercial or non-profit purposes, and the heinous crime of representing someone else's work as your own and/or profiting from the talent of others without compensating them appropriately.

I have a feeling everyone has copied a favorite layout, a visual idea, or a typeface combination -- these are gray areas in the eyes of legal and moral scholars. Our own internal moral compass is the ultimate judge and jury in such matters, and I've never stolen anything graphic that caused me a loss of sleep.

If you believe that only the original publishers or artists have the right to exploit their images, your opinion conflicts with the generally accepted notion that at some point an unprotected image becomes part of the public domain. So even though I'm not always within the letter of the law, I try not to steal any images where the artists are left to care. Sort of an "unclaimed property" philosophy, and not one I necessarily advocate for others. And of course any opinions expressed here are solely the belief of the author, and do not reflect the opinions of creativepro.com employees, their families, pets, or neighbors.

But when you collect a lot of printed ephemera, you tend to want to use it in your own creative output. That party invitation would be much better with a funny, copyrighted picture on the front. A poster to promote the local animal shelter may actually save more pet lives if it included that great drawing from a 1952 pet-food calendar. And the menu you're doing gratis for your brother-in-law's latest investment disaster would be greatly improved by a few vintage graphics lifted from an outdated cookbook.

What is a frustrated graphic artist to do?

Everything is an Homage
The best way to steal with impunity is to do it as a tribute to the original artist. This works great, especially if you say "ohh-mahhhjj" when referring to your work and gush on about the "rawness" of the technology and how it has become as integral to the art as the paint brush and the camera.

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Figure 1: If you steal one image and print it, it's theft. If you group three or more similar images together it's an homage, as seen here in this tribute to the Curt Teich & Company, first to produce the famous "big letter" postcards.

In this case, I think it's nice to credit the original source or artist, and that also goes a long way in reducing your fine and jail time, should it ever get to that. If you're going to use something as a true homage, then its purpose should be to serve the art, first and foremost. Any secondary information (date of the reunion picnic, time for the cocktails, etc.) should feel like a bonus.

Everything is a Parody
The law allows creative work to be used in ways that parody the original with the express intent of comment -- it's some sort of First Amendment thing, and it's the reason "Saturday Night Live" exists, or Adbusters, for that matter. So I guess that means the difference between an homage and a parody is your attitude. I have stolen lots of things in the name of parody -- that clever spoof of the "National Enquirer" for a real estate brochure, a car-wash promotion that drew a visit from the Secret Service (don't copy any part of money!), and many more.

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Figure 2: If you make a political statement, joke or other comment on a known graphic style or figure, it's a parody and generally exempt from prosecution. But be careful, even highly political groups like Adbusters get legal heat for their ad parodies, like those shown here.

Parody is a particularly gratifying way to steal because one of the actual goals is to make the parody look as close to the original as possible. This triggers a certain graphic-arts forensics button in most of us, which leads to pouring over type books to find an exact match, and figuring out how to degrade an image in Photoshop so it looks like it was printed in the September 4, 1942 issue of the Chicago Tribune.

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Figure 3: The line between homage and parody is sometimes blurred. When we did this cover at Publish magazine, some people wrote in and accused us of stealing the image from an Elvis Costello album. That was, of course, the whole point.

Case the Goods Carefully
I'm not sure it matters in the moral department, but in the legal department, you should cover yourself whenever possible, just in case your 87-year-old neighbor is coincidentally the guy who drew Reddy Kilowatt, and he takes offense to your use of his creation to promote a mere barbeque.

The laws of copyright are fairly confusing, but with the aid of a great online chart, and a few common-sense guidelines, you can probably avoid detection, or worse, embarrassment from your neighbors. The burning in hell part I can't address -- that's between you and your God.

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Figure 4: If you choose your targets carefully, you can find obvious candidates for theft. Not only does this album cover carry no visible copyright notice, it is vague who even published it. Note the name "Broadway Records" in tentative quotes.

The first thing I check is to see if the work even has a copyright notice. Many smaller publishers did not bother to copyright their work, and even though the notice is not currently required for a work to be protected (you have time to file after publication), if it's published before 1963 and it doesn't say it's copyrighted, it probably isn't.

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Figure 5: I would prefer to steal the image above, but it's from a Montovani record and I know he was popular. The below image is a safer bet -- it's from the record Ernie Heckscher at the Fabulous Fairmont. I doubt Ernie is around to object, and the publisher did not include a copyright notice on the record cover.

Then you have to check the date. Anything published before 1923 is likely in the public domain, even if it is copyrighted, which means it's virtually free pickin's. The older the item the less likely someone is going to care about it, or that the copyright is still in force (terms and renewal times varied over the years since the original 1909 law). That is, unless it is a trademark, which is governed by other laws and terms and is typically more restrictive.

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Figure 6: A goldmine for image thieves is catalogs from long-gone businesses, like these from the Match Corporation of America, or the Driver Tool Company. Even if someone picked up the assets, the odds of getting caught are slim.

I usually do a Google check to see if the publisher or any remnant of it is still doing business. Even though copyrights can be transferred as part of an asset sale, if someone bought the rights to a long-defunct magazine from a long-defunct publisher, what are the odds they even know what they have? This "I would ask permission if only I could contact the company" excuse opens the door to tons of material in the form of catalogs, product brochures and the other printed trappings of dead brands.

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Figure 7: I really want to steal this image, but I know Wieder Publishing is still around, and I wouldn't want to mess with any of their he-man lawyers. So instead I'll publish it here thanks to the concept of "fair use."

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Figure 8: I used the image here of a screaming woman several times for personal projects in my career, even though I'm sure somewhere someone owns the copyright to the movie Tormented. My justification is based on the fact that these images came from an exhibitors promo book and were intended to be used for publication.

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Figure 9: This image from the board game Dealer's Choice is high on my most-coveted list. But since the chairman of Transogram Toys, the manufacturer, was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 1986, I think I should let it be.

Flop, Crop, and Colorize Your Crime
Thanks to a 1990 clarification of the copyright law, it is now a little easier to define a unique work, distinct enough to be considered a new, copyrightable work, even if influenced by other works. In most cases, this favors the original artist and is why we've seen more lawsuits dealing with the issues of cross-medium (a drawing based on a photograph, a sculpture based on a painting, etc.). But I suppose there is a case to be made for "sampling" existing art for purposes of creating new art, but be cautious here. If your intent in changing an image is to disguise its source, then your actions are not defensible. But if you incorporate an older image in a body of unique work, I'm willing to give you a pass, even if the law doesn't.

Fortunately we have a 1999 lawsuit involving Corel and its endless stock-art CDs to thank for one of the most productive copyright loopholes. The court ruled in that case that an exact copy or exact image (like a photograph) of a public-domain work cannot be copyrighted as a new work. Only if the photograph adds to the image (say with a special-effect filter or lighting effect) can it be considered a new work. This means all those great scans and pictures of flat documents on eBay and other Web sites are fair game. Just be sure the work being represented is copyright free, and that the reproduction is reasonably accurate.

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Figure 10: Thanks to a court ruling, exact reproductions of copyright-free works cannot be copyrighted, except as a collection. Thus, one of my favorite books, pictured here, is only protected if you steal the whole thing, not the individual images.

Don't Aim for Tiffany's the First Time
The problem with getting away with crime is that it feeds your ego and fuels confidence. The temptation to increase the seriousness of your transgressions is always there, nagging at your dark side to plunge deeper into the abyss. Once you graduate from Reddy Kilowatt, what's to stop you from tackling Elvis or Marilyn?

So when it comes to stealing art, use common sense and instincts. Hopefully, as a creative person yourself, you know where the line is, and how you would want your own work to be remembered after you're gone. I consider most of what I do with vintage art to be the same as what folk singers do when they "pass down" old tunes by singing them endlessly in coffee houses and at various festivals (without royalty payments going to the often-unknown composers). I just hope my work isn't that boring.

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Figure 11: If someone like me doesn't steal great drawings like this anonymous work from a vintage card deck, will they simply die along with the company that produced them?

And just as you shouldn't steal from the big mob boss in town, don't ever steal from Disney, no matter how noble your cause.

It is, in fact, a deep respect and love for vintage artwork that drives me to steal it in the first place. But unlike those psycho millionaires in the movies who collect things so no one else can have them, I collect them so I can share them with others. Or at least that's my current excuse.

Read more by Gene Gable.

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