Are clip art images copyrighted?
That depends on a case-by-case basis of where you obtain your clip art images from.
It might be a shock, but not all clip art sites have the legal rights to distribute the images they have, even though they represent to users that all the images are royalty-free.
If you’re one of those lucky few who still buy CDs full of clip art, what’s very likely is that you have a license to use the images by virtue of having bought the software that came with the clip art or when you purchased the clip art CD.
What that license allows you to do with the images on the CD is the more important question. If you are considering using clip art from a CD for a commercial project, it’s important that you at least briefly look at the “end user license agreement” that governs the use of the images. It’s most likely in a file on that CD.
Here is an example of what a clip art license agreement may look like.
About.com has a good overview of copyright as it relates to clip art, as well as an analysis of several example policies.
If you take a piece of clip art and change it by recoloring it or adding to the image, you have not actually created a new piece of art. By changing the image you have merely created a "derivative work" under copyright law, not a new work. Depending on the terms of the license that you got the clip art under, changing the image could constitute a breach of the license as well as copyright infringement.
Finally, keep in mind that the law may allow reuse of clip art images outside of the license that is given to you, if you use the images in a manner that constitutes fair use. There is no set limit on how much or how little that you can borrow and reuse from another designer before you’re no longer protected by fair use.
If you are a designer who regularly uses clip art in your designs and you want to know how your work is or isn’t protected, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here