A note to our readers: Thanks so much for all the questions. The Dear Rich staff is currently experiencing delays of two to three weeks. Our most recent entry about paintings and posters triggered some followup questions, so we'd like to get those out of the way.
Question #1: Dear Rich: You said that painters control the right to make posters from their paintings. How hard is it for the painter to enforce? How often does it get enforced? I'm so glad you asked. The chances of enforcement usually depend on the ability of the copyright owner to attract and pay an attorney, which in turn depends on the lawyer's assessment of the odds for victory and the depth of the infringer's pockets.
Question #2: Dear Rich: It seems like a painting is the result of many contributions and elements. Someone creates the pigment, someone manufactures the paint, someone makes the brushes. Why do the rights end with the artist? Why should the artist's rights be any different than the rights of a house painter? I'm so glad you asked. Assuming you're asking the question, "Why does our government reward artists with copyright?" the answer is because the wealth of a nation is sometimes measured by its patents, copyrights, and trademarks (intellectual property). These products of the mind bring in (and lose) big bucks, and so government grants a limited monopoly to encourage their creation. By the way, those who create tools for artists can patent their ideas as well -- for example, the invention of the collapsible tube is credited with the birth of Impressionism.
Question #3: Dear Rich: I have a friend who is a patent attorney who said it isn't necessary to copyright my paintings or place a small letter "C" at the bottom of my painting. He claims that if I have signed the painting and someone copies it and then sells it on the open market that they are open for a lawsuit. If, however, he copies the painting and gives it to friends there is no problem. I think the copyright thing is just another lawyer scam, or a small "c" at the bottom of the painting is like a sign saying "beware of the dog." I'm so glad you asked (though the Dear Rich staff is unsure if there is a question here). Your patent attorney friend is correct that you do not need to register a copyright (though there are benefits for doing so), and since March 1989, you don't need to include copyright notice (though it's a good idea to do so). As for copying the painting and giving it to your friends, we're not clear as to your friend's source. Although there are rules regarding "limited publications," there is no "friends" exemption for reproducing visual images. Finally, as much as we like your "beware of the dog" analogy, we think you are incorrect that copyright is a "lawyer scam" -- and we think Charles Dickens and Eminem would both agree with our conclusion.