Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Question Regarding Changing Public Domain Art

Categorically, I'm one to preserve the legacy of artists whose work is now in the public domain. My question today regards the adjustment of these works "to fit my RPG needs." Take the following example...

In this case, I've taken a Gordon Browne illustration from Dandelion Clocks and Other Tales from 1887. The very first story in the book is "Dandelion Clocks" and features the character Peter Paul, sitting on the fence, wearing wooden shoes and blowing at a dandelion (below on left). It struck me how much it looked like a Hobbit (ahem... "halfling") so I decided to do some additional photo elements and retouch them into the illustration (below on right; I put in the feet, the pipe, and added some lines to the face to give it some "age"). If I were to use an illustration like this, my intention would be to credit the illustration solely to Gordon Browne. And if other retouched illustrations were included in the same document/book/etc., I might put a credit line for myself for "Photo editing and retouching" (or something similar).

The question is, do these kind of edits denigrate the original intention of the artist? Or, since the artist was originally hired to produce the work for someone anyway, does it promote the artist's legacy fairly when the work may have been otherwise lost or forgotten?


  1. I think it looks great. The artist is dead. He doesn't care about anything anymore.

  2. From a legal perspective, you are in the clear. Works that have been legally declared in the public domain are open to any transformation, transmutation, alteration, etc.

    From an ethical perspective, however, I understand your squimishness. That's why I would opt to give credit somewhere on a copyright or licensing pages-something along the lines of "image on page X based on an original work by XYZ which is now in the public domain".

  3. It's art by you, based on original work by x. You don't even have to mention the original but it's cool if you do so.

  4. I basically agree with mwschmeer.

    And I'd add heavier eyebrows -- he still looks juvenile-ish.

  5. (first-off: excellent work!)

    I'm gonna add an additional, related question:
    If/When you should remove the original artist's signature from the work.

    I can see two sides of the line (keep/remove), but am unsure where the line actually lies.

    "truncating" a work, I can see keeping the signature.
    retouching to the point of "re-imagining the work" ... leaving it feels like it would misrepresent the original artist.

  6. It's fine legally and ethically, although it would be in good taste to note in the small print something like "with apologies to Gordon Brown" or "after Gordon Brown".

  7. i would add something to art signature like your name and modern date revised so as not to confuse future scholars - it is tastefully done and exposing to a new audience - well done

  8. In terms of attribution as people have mentioned, it's nice if you say something like "adapted from an original image by X" so people know who the original artist is and so that they know that it has been modified.

    But I sense your question is more of an artistic one, dealing with the integrity of the the artist's work, along the lines of "is it artistic sacrilege to colorize films originally in black and white?" In terms of this question, I think you are fine. In essence, you are doing a form of collage or adaptation, which are valid types of art work in themselves. I don't think there is any more artistic sacrilege in it than when a filmmaker adapts a classic novel, or a playwright writes his own version of play from ancient Greek drama, or a comic-book company creates a character based on Norse mythology, etc. These are all modifications of an original, that may or may not fit the intents of the original authors/creators, and which in any even differ from the original in some way. Of course this type of question is always one of taste and opinion. Personally I'm fine with it (I even like colorized BW films).

    So, short version of a long comment: I like it.

  9. Thanks, all. You've all pretty much confirmed my various thoughts, including the fact that he doesn't look old enough. If I actually use it for anything (since I didn't really have a use for it- this was an exercise for discussion), I'll probably just redraw the face and Photoshop it in place.

  10. BTW, I appreciate everyone's input on this. THANKS!!!

  11. Ethically, if you credit the original author, but also make clear that the work is edited by you, I think you're doing justice to the artist's legacy.

    However, it might be a nice gesture if you maintained an online page where the originals of any edited art could be found. Have a line on the book's copyright page with something to the effect of "This book contains art which is in the public domain, which has been edited to suit the book's needs. To see the originals, visit

  12. Standard credit in comic books is your signature, then "after So-N-So".