Is Tracing Plagiarism?

One of my instructors recently gave us a lecture about copyright, plagiarism, and the extent to which you can use other people’s work. He talked about the Shepard Fairey case where he created a portrait of President Obama using a photograph that he did not own the copyright to. Fairey did not seek permission to use the photo, and as a result he was sued and ended up having to pay a lot of money to the Associated Press, who owned the copyright to the photograph. His illustration did look quite different from the original photograph, but it wasn’t different enough. The question is, when is your new work different enough from someone else’s?


Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster next to the Associated Press photo.

In the past I have used photographs that are not my own in order to construct new work. In my class, I have noticed quite a few students using photographs to create vector outlines from which they create a new version of the original. But is this a type of plagiarism? In a way, you are tracing someone else’s work, which you do not own the copyright to, and then passing it off as your own original work. So in effect, yes, that is a form of plagiarism. But is it bad? If it looks “different enough”, is it ok?

Part of the problem is how easy it is to do. We have millions of free photos at our disposal online. You just download the one you like, pop it into Illustrator, and start tracing with your pen tool. Or, handily, have Illustrator trace it for you by using the Image Trace function! I found a discussion online about using a photograph to create a vector image for a logo. The person had posted their work and asked if they had violated copyright. The had traced the photograph and created the vector image from it. It wasn’t completely the same, but still very close and instantly recognizable from the original photo.


The vector image in question, and the original photo beneath it.

From what I have been able to glean online, this, and Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster, is a form of derivative work. So if you do not have permission to use the original photo, then yes, it becomes a copyright issue. If the image you produce is instantly recognizable as a copy of the original, you are breaching the owner’s copyright protection. It is best to seek permission for using any work that is not yours, and if you cannot receive permission, or if it is too expensive, use something else.

As students, we are not selling our work. We are completing assignments. However, this kind of plagiarism could lead to failing an assignment, or even being suspended or expelled from school. But once we start working as graphic designers, our work will have a monetary value. Once the work in question is being sold, you or your company can be sued for copyright infringement. It would take a while for the copyright owner to sue you, but the results could be disastrous for you, your company, and ultimately your graphic design career. The overruling advice: it is not worth the risk.

Shepard Fairey case

Graphic Design Stack Exchange discussion about tracing vectors

Technical Illustrators Forum discussion about tracing and copyright

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