Appropriating Text – (Copy)Right or Wrong?

It’s not unusual for artists to connect deeply with the words of others and want to share them with the world. Those words can come from poetry, song lyrics, speeches, passages of books – anyplace that puts into words exactly what said artist is feeling at that very moment. But how do we know the point at which taking those words for your own NOT the right (or legal) thing to do. When it comes to putting text into art, a short except or single sentence is the most likely choice for an artist. So whats the harm in taking that small group of words from someone else?

As a general standard, a short set of words or phrase (for arguments sake let’s less than 10) cannot be copyrighted. This is not always true however, and in some cases even taking just these few short words for your art can be considered copyright infringement. Standford[1] tells us that there are several things to consider when deciding if you can use the text of someone else, two of which I think are relevant to placing text into artwork and have listed below:

  1. Is the artwork in which the words are situated being used for commercial gain?
  2. Are you using a phrase which is well known and unique?

In my opinion these two points create the foundation of deciding whether or not to appropriate and what steps to follow if you are going to use this appropriated text. The first point is pretty straightforward. You can’t take someone else’s unique words for your own and make money from them. While imitation might be the highest form of flattery, making money from someone else’s original written work and claiming it to be your own is a big no-no.

In the public space there are various forms of art which might use written text, and not all of them have a commercial value. For example, a graffiti work in a laneway is not really there to bring in cash for the artist so technically it abides by these copyright rules. That’s without mentioning the ambiguous nature of the words and graffiti street art’s generally easy removal. It would be a hard job to track down a street artist and sue them over the use of your words in a painting which can be easily washed off or painted over. If said artist was ONLY using those unique words, over and over again without referencing their original author, the copyright situation here might change. And when it comes to a public commissioned artwork, in which an artist is paid to create their street art this is a different story altogether.

I’m going to use three of my own artworks to demonstrate how copyright might apply in other public art settings, the first one being a paid commission with the City of Melbourne’s Metro Tunnel project. In 2017 I created a 32m x 2m digital artwork, “Birdsong”, which was on show in the Melbourne CBD for several months. I used excerpts from song lyrics as the main point of the piece, along with pixelated birds and QR codes. Each small section of song I chose was using metaphors referencing birds and freedom. No more than a short sentence was used, and all seemingly common enough so as to not infringe on any copyright (according to me and the City of Melbourne at least).

If I had wanted to use more unique phrases, there are some ways around infringing on copyright. This first is to reference the creator of the phrase. Part of my artwork also involved linking to a playlist online via QR code, thereby making reference to those who the words belonged to (just in case, but also creating an interactive layer to my art).

The second way to use someone else’s words is just asking their owner (if possible). For another public art piece of mine I handed out postcards containing the entire Maya Angelou poem “Caged Bird“[2] on one side, and a digitally edited endangered regent Honeyeater on the other. To past any chance of copyright infringement I simply found someone to email and asked to use the poem. Though I wasn’t making money from this work and was referencing the author, at the beginning I wasn’t sure what my outcome would be so it was best to get permission. If I had only used a short phrase from this poem I would have done the same, as the entirety of the words in this poem are exceptionally unique and well known (even as a reworking of another poem[3] by Paul Dunbar).

A screenshot of a cell phone

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These laws of course do not prohibit the use of proverbs or common sayings, which although unique are considered everyday phrases that belong to everyone. In my artwork “The Proverbial Bird” I used many proverbs from across the globe and placed them as signage in a garden setting. This was not a paid artwork, but was part of an art festival. There were no copyright infringement worries here at all and it is likely I will use these (or other) proverbs again in a different way.

A green street sign sitting next to a tree

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If you are wanting to find inspiration in the words of others to put in your artwork, or just can’t find your own anywhere, the public domain[4] in the place to go. Copyright does expire after a certain period of time. In Australian law[5] this is generally 70 years after the author has passed away (with similar time periods in other counties). After that works of art including writing are free for use however you like, unless of course the copyright has been renewed for some reason (Like if you are Disney, and are scared of losing your mouse).

In the end, it’s probably best to try to write your own words unless you have a specific reason for wanted to use those of someone else (as I did in the examples above). You can always be inspired by the words and get your own creative writing juices flowing from there. Or you can just reference the original author and keep going on your merry way.


[1] https://fairuse.stanford.edu/2003/09/09/copyright_protection_for_short/

[2] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/48989/caged-bird

[3] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46459/sympathy-56d22658afbc0

[4] https://www.public-domain-poetry.com/

[5] https://www.artslaw.com.au/information-sheet/copyright/

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