Copyright Law and Altered Books


It would take a room full of lawyers to figure out copyright law as it pertains to altered books. I'm no lawyer, so I'm going to provide you with a little information, and then direct you to sites that offer a more comprehensive examination of the subject.

cautionWe are discussing an extremely complex subject with many gray areas. Therefore, many of the questions that altered book artists ask are open to interpretation. The information on this page is general information and should not be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney specializing in intellectual property issues with specific questions.

What It Is

Copyright, by definition, means " the right to copy."

Copyright owners have the sole right to publish or copy a work. The rights can be sold, licensed under various terms and conditions, or given away.

When Does It Apply

Before a work is eligible for protection, it must meet three conditions:

  1. It must be your original work.

  2. It must be a "fixed" work. Fixed means that you must have expressed your creation in a tangible form, such as writing, painting, drawing, etc. Spoken ideas are not protected until put in fixed form.

    Example: Suppose you tell your friend the plot of a story you might someday write. Your friend then proceeds to write the story using your plot. The rights belong to your friend, since your plot was not in fixed form.

  3. You must be a citizen of a country that subscribes to international copyright laws. (This includes US, Canada and most countries in the western world.)

Caveat: If you create a works through the terms of your employment, or through an arrangement in which copyright is clearly designated to someone else, then you are not the owner.

When Does it Expire?

Copyright expires 70 years after the creator's death, when the works go into the public domain (unless other legalities apply, as can be the case). Works in the public domain can be used and copied freely.

How Do I Claim Copyright?

When you create an eligible work, the ownership is automatic. You are not legally required to mark your work with a sign (eg. © June Campbell 2004) although to do so is a good idea. You are not legally required to register your works with a government body, although again, doing so is a good idea. If you end up in a dispute, it is not enough to say you own the copyright. You must be able to prove it.

What Happens When There is a Violation?

Sometimes nothing. As with any law, it's a case of what you can get away with. On the other hand, you could find yourself in a costly legal dispute. And, since copyright has so many gray areas, some disputes are settled by a judicial ruling.

What Are the Implications for Altered Book Artists?

Now that is a BIG can of worms!

Consider these issues:
  • Various components of the books we use are likely to be protected.
  • Images taken from magazines and web sites are likely to be protected. If you want to use a picture from The Smithsonian magazine, for example, it is legal to do so only if you obtain permission from the person who holds the rights on the image. This might be the Smithsonian -- or it might be the photographer who took the picture, depending on the agreement reached between the two parties.
  • Some rubber stampcompanies have complex licensing agreements that stipulate the conditions under which their images can be used.
  • The collages we create are our original work to an extent, but might contain protected components.
  • Collages are considered "derivative works", meaning they are derived from a number of sources. To be considered original, your collage must be different enough from the original that it will be considered a new work. Whether or not it is sufficiently different is open to interpretation.
  • A special provision of copyright law stipulates that a minimal amount of a works can be incorporated in a college without obtaining permission. "Minimal" is not defined clearly and is open to interpretation.

I can but point out some of the issues, but I cannot clarify them for you. Please try the links below for additional information.


Berne Convention
Complete text of the Berne Convention, courtesy of Cornell University.

Fair Use Provisions
Stanford University addresses issues pertaining to fair use, multimedia, web sites, etc.

Canadian Intellectual Property Office
Canadian information here.

Copyright for Collage Artists :
A collage artist shares her research. It is an excellent site.

Copyright for Collage and AB Artists Discussion Group
For collage and altered book artists and the lawyers who love them.

US Gov. Copyright Office Web Site:
There is tons of material here to wade through.

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