Monday, September 12, 2016

Can I Sell Public Domain Image as Vector Image?

Dear Rich: I am a graphic designer. I am wondering if I can use a public domain image as a model to create a vector image, then sell that vector image on posters or a t-shirt. I created a famous chandelier in Illustrator, based upon a photograph of that chandelier that I found with a Public Domain license. Another example might be creating a vector drawing of the Golden Gate at Versailles. Each element was hand-created using illustrator tools, and not auto-traced.
If the image is in the public domain, you are free to convert if for reproduction on posters or t-shirts.
Does vector conversion create a separate copyright? The more your vectorized image differs from the original, the more likely you can claim copyright in the distinguishing features and stop others from using your work. If, for example, your work resembles more of a hand-drawn work than a photo, you can claim copyright. But if your vectorized image is simply a slavish reproduction of the original image, you will not be able to stop others who copy it. You cannot stop others from vectorizing the public domain image, even if the result is substantially similar to yours.
A public domain license? You refer to the underlying illustration as being subject to a "public domain license." We're not clear what that means. If the chandelier illustration is in the public domain no permission or license is needed. If you are referring to a Creative Commons license or some other license, then the work is not in the public domain and you must abide by the conditions of the license -- for example providing attribution if required.