Legal implementations of vectorizing copyrighted images (was Re:[Clipart] Can't submit clipart)

Nathan Eady eady at
Thu Oct 7 08:28:53 PDT 2004

Bryce Harrington wrote:
> On Wed, 6 Oct 2004, Nicu Buculei wrote:
>>PS: i don't think the large-computer.svg is OK, it may be drawn from 
>>scratch, but it imitates perfectly the original
> Do we have some guidelines regarding what is legally allowed for
> vectorizing copyrighted images?  For example, if one vectorized clipart
> from a printed book, would the book's copyright still hold?  What if you
> redrew them manually from scratch?  How different from the original
> would it need to look?

This comes down to the question of what is copyrightable; an *idea* is
not copyrighteable, so that for example Disney can't stop you from
publishing any image of a mouse drawn in a cartoon style.  However, a
specific _expression_ of an idea is protected, so that you can't
copy Mickey, change one little thing such as the color of his trousers,
and publish it as your own work.  (When we talk about Mickey we also
get into trademark law, but ignore that for the moment.)  You can draw
a rabbit, and you can draw an anthropomorphised rabbit holding a carrot,
but if your rabbit is recognizeable as coming from a specific Warner
Brothers cartoon, you have (potentially) a problem.

The question that you really have to ask is, if you set the two
images side-by-side, will it appear as though one was copied from
the other, or will they look like two merely similar but distinct
works?  If you stand them up next to half a dozen other images
depicting the same kind of thing, will they stick out as the
same where the others are different?

IANAL, but when drawing vector graphics based on photographs what
I usually do is to collect several photographs from different sources,
depicting similar objects, look at them all to get a feel for what
that kind of object looks like, and draw elements that are common
to several of them, or combine aspects of different ones. is great for this.  If your image definitely looks
like a waffle but does not directly resemble any _specific_ waffle
image, you are clear.

You are allowed to get ideas from extant works; what you may not
do is directly copy the specific appearance or expression of a
specific extant work (without permissions and so on, except under
fair use and all that jazz, and IANAL).

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