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Legal Question - Tracing photographs with Illustrator

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Sales Dude McBoob
Legal Question - Tracing photographs with Illustrator
on Mar 15, 2007 at 4:30:30 pm


A friend of mine recently taught me a method of tracing images in Illustrator. Basically, I take a digital photograph and turn it into a graphic illustration. I showed this new skill to my boss and he liked it and had me utilize it for newsletters and content for the company website. It's now become a regular thing + part of my job.

It's fun. I dig it. But I can't help but be a little worried about the legalities involved. Let me give you an example:

Say you worked for a store that sold pet supplies. Your job was to create graphic illustrations. So you go online and search images and find the perfect picture of a dog lapping up water from a dog bowl. You bring that image into Illustrator and turn it into a graphic -all by hand -using the pen tool for almost everything. The finished illustration looks a lot like the photograph, but the original image is not there at all, it's 100% handmade tracing, so in a sense it's a new, original image. In essence, what was once a photo now looks like an illustration from a 7th grade social studies textbook.

What are the legalities of this practice? Can the orginal photographer come after you? Would they have a case?

Okay, now say the image of the drinking dog came from another pet supply store's website. However, the photo isn't one of their own, it's a sort of obscure image deep from within a gallery of photos that their customers had submitted. What is the legality there?

Thanks in advance,

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Mike Gondek
Re: Legal Question - Tracing photographs with Illustrator
on Mar 16, 2007 at 6:30:22 pm

Many of the same rules as applying to photo retouching, likely apply here. Teh law is everchanign on thsi topic, but will share what applies here. Someone can always sue you and drag you through appeals and your lawyer expenses are not reimbursable in most situations and countersuing for punitive damages are rarely recovered.

If you are working for salary, and not receiving royalties for this work, then the risk lies with your employer and no case could realistically be won against you; unless the contract you signed with your employer had something in it to their defense. So the risk is with your employer unless you are an independant contractor/freelancer (I hate that word cause you dont work for free).

You can even get sued by using something from google images, retouching it and using this. You can buy images from for a few bucks (which is almost free), and further protect yourself, because you then own royalty free rights.

I also recomend taking your own photos when possible. Draft up a model photo release, and have people sign that if you use their image. In addition to the usual stuff, put a checkbox on your form that says "I wish (your companies name) to send me a physical printed copy of any promotion in which my image was used." , and space for their address. What is important about that is that there is an exchange of something of value for you using their image, without it they could sue you and win regardless if you have their signature. And again I feel it is the right thing to do, cause if you use their picture they should get a copy of it.

Now my post does not intend to scare you into not tracing image, but just to give you accurate information you cna use. I hope you trace many photos and create beautiful images, and I am sure you will not use photos that would abuse somebody financially or their privacy, or else you would not have posted the question.

With art schools having such low requirements to graduate, I find it great when somoene uses Illustrator or Painter in illustration.

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