Altered Art Images ~ How to LEGALLY Use Other People’s Images

by Christine

Altered Art jewelry is pretty trendy these days, and with good reason I think. As we get more and more technologized (yes I do make up words– one of the benefits of self-publishing methinks) and information and life spirals out of control, I think people have a bit of nostalgia for older, simpler times.

Probably romanticizing the past, but what the heck. We all need something to get enthused about, whether or not they have any basis in reality.

Altered Art Defined (sort of)

Patty Tierney's Sherlock Holmes Optical Lens Pendant

Patty Tierney

So altered art generally refers to any kind of art, jewelry making or otherwise, that uses, manipulates, and transforms images, often adding mixed media elements, and essentially producing something entirely new from repurposed images and materials.

I know, I know, kinda vague.

Here’s a digression — I’ll get back to the point of this in a sec–When I was in art school years ago, the same kind of thing was referred to as “Postmodernism” which was even more vague. Endless hours were spent by intellectuals just “in dialogue” (another artsy school term that was thrown around needlessly when simpler terms could be used) just in defining the darn movement.

Yes, it’s true, I do have Post-Tramatic-Art-School Disorder. I think that’s an actual diagnosis in the DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

Okay! Back to our regularly scheduled programming!

The Question of Using Images Legally

I received a question about using images for altered art jewelry from Robin in Ft. Myers FL

I am wanting to start making Altered Art Jewelry, specifically charm bracelets, but I need to find out what pictures, artwork, printed materials, etc that I can use without having to worry about copyrights, or legal ownership issues. Are there any books or websites that may have this information? For example, if I want to use a magazine cover as a miniature on a bracelet, do I need “permission” or is is it fair game?

Here’s a general rule of thumb: assume all material is copyrighted unless expressly claimed otherwise. Anytime someone writes an article, creates an image or graphic, takes a photograph, draws a sketch, or records music, they automatically own the copyright to their own work.

Copyrights Run Out…

Copyrights do run out, generally 50 to 70 years after the artist or writer is dead (if the author is known) and 50 to 70 years after the creation of the work if the author is anonymous.

Copyright expiry date differs from country to country (of origin) and also differs from type of artwort/writing as well, and may be different based on different time periods.

For example, in Australia, any photo pre 1955 is now in the public domain. (Terminology: expired copyright=public domain)

BUT, any post 1955 photo in Australia is copyrighted for 70 years after the photographer dies. So you really have to do some checking. The Wikipedia is a pretty good resource for learning about the various rules.

Public Domain Image Links

Here are some links for finding public domain images:

Wikipedia has a huge list of links to images in the public domain.

Dover publishing: Public domain images for purchase on CD-Rom and in print books
Dover’s free sampler: Free samples of images from their books are emailed regularly to subscribers
Karen’s Whimsy
: One of my faves – This website has free downloadable scanned images from books no longer under copyright.

You Can Use Creative Commons Licensed Work Too…

Another way to go is to use artwork and images that have been licensed under the Creative Commons designation.

Creative Commons licensed work has been designated a shared license by the author. This means that you can often use, and sometimes even rework an author or artist’s work entirely. Creative Commons licensed work ranges from music, to articles, to images, and more. The most common license is probably the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 where you are free to use, reprint, and republish the work as long as you give proper attribution to the author.

For more info about the different Creative Commons licenses, visit

How to Find Creative Commons Licensed Images

To find creative commons licensed work, used the “advanced search” feature of Google search, and find “Date, usage rights, numeric range, and more”, and choose among the options for usage rights.

Google Advanced Search

Google Advanced Search

Stock Photos

The third way way to legally use other people’s images is to use stock photos. These are generally more current so are used more for website graphics than for altered art.

stock.xchng: my site of choice fdor free stock photos


Artist Photo references (starting from the top)
1) ZinniasArt.blogspotcom (posted January 6, 2008)
2) Pattie Tierney’s Wearable Art

Note to Robin: Hope that helped!

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Trish November 6, 2008 at 12:04 pm

Good info! I had not considered this – haven’t gotten into using many images as of yet – but now I’m a whole lot more informed! Thanks also for the links!


Bev November 6, 2008 at 12:56 pm

Christine, Great article with great sources. Thanks. Bev

Cindy Lietz, Polymer Clay Tutor November 6, 2008 at 7:30 pm

Thank you so much for this excellent resource! Spent have the day looking at some of the links!

Sonny December 15, 2008 at 3:41 pm

Very informative answer to Robins question. I have one of my own with a little different twist. I would like to make and sell jewelry using photos. The photos I would be using are school pictures that have been taken by a pro either in the school or studio. Probably not legal, but I’m listening.

Thanks in advance for your reply. Sonny

Christine December 15, 2008 at 6:13 pm

Hey Sonny,
Here’s my best guess- if someone has bought their school pictures and has asked you to make them some jewelry with them I’m guessing that’s fine. If you are using people’s pictures without their permission people might get pretty mad about it. I wouldn’t do it unless you’re getting custom orders with the person giving you their picture to use.

Sonny December 16, 2008 at 3:26 am

Thank you for the quick reply Christine.
Yes, the picture would have been bought and given to me for making the jewelry item. However, to make the picture the right size to suit my purpose, I would have to copy, resize, and reprint it. The original would then be returned to the customer. I’m concerned about getting in trouble with the photographer who took the original since copying it may be in violation of a copyright law.
Forgive me for not being more specific in my original post.
Keep up the good work and thanks again, Sonny

Sharon Fullen May 4, 2009 at 11:31 am

This is a great resource for jewelry artists. As a jewelry artist myself and a freelance business writer, this subject often comes up in discussions so getting it out there is a real service.

Christine May 6, 2009 at 9:53 am

Sharon, what can I say? I aim to please. I get a lot of questions about this especially from artists just starting out in their businesses. It’s a whole new ball game when you start selling isn’t it!

Thanks for commenting :)

Kathy August 21, 2009 at 12:42 am

FYI: photos such as those taken for school pictures are copyrighted. I learned this when I attempted to have them saved to a disk by a professional company. None would touch them without written releases which are time consuming and sometimes expensive. I now tell my own kids to get those written releases when they have their children’s pictures taken in case they want to put them in a journal or aon a cd in the future.

So if you plan to sell jewelry with the commercial photos, be careful because they are copyrighted.

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