You’ve just made a big sale. Big, beautiful canvas reproductions of a half dozen of your best works. You’re delighted.

Until those images start appearing in unusual places. On a web site or social media page somewhere. Note cards and stationary here. A small reproduced image – clearly second generation – there. Some of them have even been manipulated digitally. To top it all off, you step into an exhibit of original art and there is one of your best images reproduced on canvas. Yes, it is an original painting, hand painted by another artist. But it’s clearly your image, your composition, copied in another person’s hand.

What do you do?

If you’re like most artists, you issue a complaint to someone. At the least, you want to talk to the artist. Did they really did copy your work or were they inspired by the same source material that inspired you?

You find out they were given permission to use that image by the person who bought the original reproductions from you. When you ask that client, you’re told, “I bought the prints, so I thought I could do whatever I wanted with them.” It soon transpires that they’ve had their own note cards, stationary, and prints made and have been using them ever since.

Sound silly? Sound farfetched?

Replace the canvas reproductions with photographs and all of a sudden it doesn’t sound so farfetched.

The work of a professional photographer should be considered the same way you consider the work that comes from your studio. The fact that a photographer uses a camera does NOT make his or her work any less valuable than the paintings you produce.

Does this apply if you’re working for a client on a custom portrait?

Absolutely.

Many people have professional photographs of their horses. Many of them believe that because they purchased a photographic print, they can do with it whatever they want.

Although a common belief, it is not true. The photographer still owns the rights to the photographs and has the ability to exercise control over how those images are used.

So what do you do?

Contact the photographer. Let him or her know you’ve been hired to paint a portrait based on some of their work and ask if that’s okay.

If they refuse, respect their decision and explain to your client that those images are off limits.

Many photographer’s will agree, however, and you’ll have access to stunning reference materials. Be advised, however, that there may be qualifications.

  • You may have to buy a high-resolution digital or paper print of the image.
  • You may have to pay a right of usage fee.
  • You may have to credit the photographer whenever the painting appears in print or online.
  • You may be asked for a high quality digital image of the finished painting.

If you accept the image as reference material, be diligent in accepting and complying with the terms, as well. All of them. Promptly.

If you don’t, it won’t take long to gain a reputation. Once that reputation is established, it will be very difficult to get permission from other photographers.

If you treat photographers with the same respect with which you want to be treated and if you follow their conditions, it won’t take long to gain a good reputation.

And we all know that a good reputation is one key to a successful, long-term business in the art world.

Treat it wisely.