Copyright and usage in political advertising: Bridget Riley example

During the local council elections in the UK last month a few campaign managers got in contact with questions about the clearances they need to get before including photographs and imagery in campaign material.

Ever the obedient client servant, I thought I would post a short note on the subject.

The Institute of Practitioners of Advertising give this definition of copyright:

“An original copyright work is one that is the result of independent, creative effort. It will not be classed as original if it has been copied from something that already exists. Before giving a work protection, the court will check to see that the work is “the author’s own intellectual creation”, an original expression of the creative freedom of the author. As copyright protects the expression of an idea, rather than the idea itself, it only exists if the work has been fixed or recorded in a permanent form.”

So if you find an image online that you think would really bring your leaflet to life, you need to be careful to make sure that it isn’t a piece of original, independent art work.  Copyright protection in the UK is automatic, no official registration is required, so the fact that it is available freely online doesn’t mean that you’re allowed to use it as you please; indeed the fact that it is online means that it is a permanent ‘expression of an idea’ and you should immediately be wary of using it.

For example, the artwork of Bridget Riley – a famous British painter – can be found all over Google images under various search terms.  However, finding it on Google image search doesn’t mean that it’s free for you to use.  If you decided to include the Bridget Riley image in your poster you would be liable to a legal challenge as it is a breach of intellectual property; indeed Bridget Riley doesn’t allow her artistic works to be used in any form of advertising so you really would be in deep trouble.

So, in short, you can only use an image or a photograph if you are the originator or you have permission from the originator to use it, if you use an image for which neither applies, you are at risk of a legal challenge; the only exception is if the originator has been dead for over 70 years.

Every single election period someone is caught out falling foul of this law.  As soon as you distribute a piece of political communication one of the first things your opponents will do is check that you have paid for the right to use everything in the ad.  Any positive impact that your communication may be having will immediately be curtailed if the opposing campaign can show that you have created it without permission.

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