The question arose the other day as to whether or not someone can take public-domain photos, use them in an original piece pf art, and then copyright that art piece in the creator's name.
It's an interesting situation with an answer every bit as intriguing. But, first, let me preface this with a statement of fact: "Now, I'm no scientist or medical doctor." Nor, for that matter, an attorney.
However, with that out of the way, my understanding—and the only one that makes sense here—is that you can use copyright-free images anyway you like, which you already know. Toward that end, if you manipulate, combine, or otherwise morph those images into a finished product that's completely different from the copyright-free imagery with which you began, you can copyright your finished creation so that it can't be appropriated legally without your permission.
Think of a photomontage. That's a group of two or more separate photographs joined in some fashion into a single work of art through manipulation of one type or another, often via soft edges, overlapping, multiple exposures, warping the imagery, etc. Although the individual images may be copyright free (and, therefore, nothing you can copyright), if you create a brand new multi-image or manipulated-image creation from those original images, you're entitled to copyright your new work. It's unique, it's exclusively yours, and it can't be used by anyone else for commercial purposes without your authorization. The original public-domain photos would remain in the public domain, of course. You can't assume ownership of them. But you can assume ownership of your original, new creation based upon them.
The same would hold true for copyrighted images. If you take an image and morph it in some way (say, by posterizing it or warping it so that it no longer resembles the original), you have created what is in effect a totally different and unique image to which you're entitled to copyright protection. The key here is that the finished product must be substantially changed from the original. You can't take a copyrighted image of, say, Marilyn Monroe, adjust the color saturation or sharpness, and claim it as your own. Similarly, you can't take five copyrighted images, print them all without change in one photo collage, and claim it's a new and unique work of art. You can only do so by altering each of the five individual images markedly from the original.
That means, of course, that there's something of a fine line between how much change is change and how much is merely misappropriation. If you're unsure, you would be wise to contact an intellectual-rights attorney. Alternatively, you might contact the original artist/copyright holder, show him or her your proposed new work to see if there's any objection to your use of his original material, and get the copyright holder's written permission to use his altered photo.
The whole concept is similar to rewriting copyrighted passages from a book. If you make the copyrighted material substantially different by your choice of words, their arrangement, and your use of punctuation, you're entitled to use that altered material in your name and receive copyright protection. If you simply copy a passage word-for-word, though, with only a minor change of a word or two, chances are good you'll be violating the copyright act and be legally culpable. At least, that's the way I understand things.
In the end, as with all questions about copyright and the law, it's wise to use a lot of sense and a whole bunch of creativity. Remember: The creator of an original work is entitled to all rewards from that creation. So, make sure you're actually a creator of original work and not simply an appropriator. The more you change an original copyrighted piece, the safer you'll be in the event that legal action is instituted against you.
Got that? Good. Now ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.