Copyright and Realism In Stories and Art

2015  Artwork Copyright and realism sketch

Before I begin, I should probably make the usual disclaimer that I’m not a lawyer and that nothing in this article should be seen as legal advice of any kind. Plus, of course, every country has it’s own slightly different copyright rules and/or traditions too.

That said, let’s talk about copyright and how it can affect the level of realism we can include in our stories and works of art.

The fact is that we are surrounded by copyrighted material most of the time. It’s in the posters on the walls, the music that we listen to, the television that we watch, the comics we read, the pictures on the T-shirts that we wear, the advertisements that plague our internet, the catchphrases from movies that we all use etc….

So, creating any kind of “realistic” depiction of the modern world in fiction is fraught with difficulty for both artists and writers – given how much of our real world and surrounding culture is “protected” (in the sense of a mob boss demanding ‘protection money’) by copyright .

Most legal traditions recognise this fact and either have explicit “fair use” exemptions or vague informal traditions that allow the use of small amounts of copyrighted content etc… in fiction, even if it’s sold commercially.

Likewise, most countries also allow you to make parodies of copyrighted things (non-commercial fan art/fan fiction is something of a grey area in practice, but seems to be generally tolerated by most copyright owners) – although the definition of what is and isn’t a “legal” parody can vary from country to country.

However, the limits of what is and isn’t “fair use” can sometimes be vague and this can have a chilling effect on some writers and artists. And, since the limits of what is and isn’t “fair use” can be vaguely-worded enough that they have to be decided though court cases rather than just by looking at a simple set of clear guidelines, it’s understandable why some artists and writers might shy away from depicting the world in a truly realistic way.

Generally speaking, most national copyright laws allow people to reference other cultural works – the best example of this I’ve read about (I can’t remember on which site exactly though) is that you can draw a generic book in the background of your picture and write “Harry Potter” on the cover. But, the limits of what is and isn’t an acceptable reference can vary slightly from country to country.

Likewise, you can mention in your novel or short story that your character is listening to a certain band, watching a particular movie etc…. In fact, in most countries, you generally have a huge amount of leeway when it comes to purely written descriptions of copyrighted things. However, one weird exception to this (at least in the UK) is song lyrics.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I was genuinely shocked when I went to a seminar at university given by someone who ran a small publishing company who pointed out that, even for quoting a few lines of a completely obscure song in a fictional work, they had to pay several hundred pounds in extortion money royalties to the record company before they could publish it.

Whilst quoting small amounts of song lyrics in reviews/in a non-fiction critical context is perfectly fine under UK law, the rules about quoting them in fiction seem to be weirdly strict. But, then again, these are just the laws of one country and the laws in your own country might be different.

So, yes, representing the world realistically in fiction and art is fraught with difficulties due to the plethora of stupid copyright laws that exist around the world.

So, what do you do?

Well, there are a few options – you can do your research and try to make sure that you stick to the vague “fair use” limits of any relevant copyright laws and hope that you don’t end up getting sued by anyone. Which you probably won’t and, even if you do, then you’ll have a good defence.

On the other hand (and I don’t recommend doing this – except possibly for non-commercial fan art/fan fiction or for parodies, if this is allowed/tolerated where you live), you can ignore copyright completely and just enjoy the creative freedom that all artists and writers should enjoy and have enjoyed in centuries past – albeit at some level of risk. And, in the age of the internet, this is what many creative people instinctively do and at least a certain amount of this seems to be either tolerated or at least not noticed.

Or, like I do most of the time in my art (except when I’m making non-commercial fan art and/or parodies), you can just err on the side of caution and make your work as generic as possible. You can come up with fake products, movies, songs etc.. for your story/comic/painting that only allude to real things and you can just hope that they at least look vaguely realistic.

But, this requires a lot more time and thought and it also lowers the level of realism that you can include in your work. Which, amongst other reasons, is why I don’t really tend to produce that much in the way of “realistic” artwork.

In summary, our copyright laws around the world are in urgent need of reform and it would do artists and writers a huge favour if every country had much clearer, more lenient and more logical “fair use” guidelines.

After all, if the world that we all live in is filled with copyrighted things, then we should have the right to represent this accurately without fear.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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