I frequently see forum posts by new vector illustrators surprised that their files are rejected for copyright reasons on Royalty Free stock sites. Some of these subjects (such as locations, products, buildings, cars, etc) come up over and over again so I’ve decided to list some of the most common ones I’ve seen.
Please note I’m not a legal expert at all! You should always do your own research when creating an illustration and when in doubt consult a lawyer who specializes in Intellectual Property. This is just a quick overview of some of the most common reasons a vector illustration is rejected for copyright or trademark reasons.
Whenever possible, I’ll link to more information about each subject.
Sports & Sporting Events
Sports (sporting events, stadiums, team uniforms, and so on) are a no-no for stock illustrations. Most sports teams and organizations have very strict rules to protect their IP (‘Intellectual Property’).
Just as an example, here’s a link to FIFA’s Brand Protection page. You’ll see right away that they are very, very serious about protecting their brand. Even the soccer balls (footballs to non-Americans) are custom designed for each World Cup event and are protected designs.
Do a little more digging and you’ll see most major sporting organizations have similar pages on their websites. Here are just a few interesting links I found:
- IP and Sports – Background Brief – via WIPO
- NFL Trademarks: Everything You Need To Know – via upcounsel
- The Olympic Trademark and its Effect on Brands – via Forbes
- Can I use NFL (or other sports team) Logos Without Permission? – via Avvo
- Sports Trademarks: Everything You Need to Know – via upcounsel
- Staying Onside with FIFA: Trademarks and the World Cup – via Wises
You might think microstock sites like iStock are being strict on sports-related illustrations but if you do little bit of research you’ll quickly see that sports are BIG business, and highly, highly protected.
High end electronics such as the iPhone, iMac, etc are a no-no for most Royalty Free stock illustration sites. Remember, the companies creating these products spend millions of dollars in researching, designing and developing these products, then even more to market them to the public.
If you want to draw electronics, that’s fine but make sure you’re not copying anything distinctive from existing products on the market. That’s the nice thing about illustrations: It’s easy to change shapes, colors and move bits around to create an entirely new product.
Here are some related links if you’re interested in reading more:
- Guidelines for Using Apple Trademarks and Copyright – via Apple
- Apple sues Samsung: A complete lawsuit analysis – via The Verge
Believe it or not, the shape of the guitar you’ve just traced might not be useable as a Royalty Free illustration. Many guitar makers are highly protective of the shape and distinctive design elements to their products. If you’re drawing a guitar you’d better make sure you’re creating your own headstock shapes and avoiding any other unique elements to existing guitars. Here’s some more information I found:
- Three Chords and a Lawsuit: A Brief History of Guitars and Trademarks – Via IP Registration and Enforcement Blog
- Spotlight On: Fender Trademarks – Via Patents Rock
- Shape of Things: A Brief History of the Peculiar Behind-the-Scenes War Over Guitar Designs – Via PREMIERGuitar
Quotations, Song Lyrics, Catchphrases
It’s tempting to take a well known phrase or quotation and turn it into a pretty typographic design. However, many of these are trademarked and can land you in hot water if you try to license them as RF stock. Always, ALWAYS research the text you want to use to see if it’s protected before you upload!
- Using Famous Quotes on Products: When is it OK? – Via Emily McDowell Studio
- 6 Famous Catchphrases That Were Trademarked – Via Language Connections
- Are Song Titles & Lyrics Protected by Copyright or Trademark Law? Via TheLaw.com
- Copyright & Trademark Protection for Song Titles and Lyrics – Via ExpertLaw
Many unique and distinctive furniture pieces are highly protected, particularly mid-Century modern designs. For example, The Foundation Le Corbusier owns the rights to the famous designs of Le Corbusier (AKA Charles-Edouard Jeanneret), a renowned architect and furniture designer in the early to mid 1900’s. Any commercial illustration showing any of these designs requires special permission from the FLC (if you’re not sure what this furniture looks like, here’s a link to a Google Images search). If you want to draw some furniture you’d better be careful and make sure you’re not copying any existing designs.
Architecture, Landmarks and Locations
Many buildings and locations are protected and can’t be licensed commercially as Royalty Free stock. The more identifiable and unique the building, the more likely it is to be protected. Always research any locations you are looking to draw to see if there are restrictions. Tip: The websites for most locations and buildings will have a section about commercial imagery, such as photography permit permission requests.
So if you’re looking to draw real life places, make sure you’re steering clear of protected landmarks, buildings, and locations.
- The 10 Things You Must Know About Architectural Copyrights – Via ArchDaily.com
- 10 Famous Landmarks You’re Not Allowed To Depict For Commercial Use – Via DIYPhotography
- Copyright in Architecture in the United States – via Wikipedia
- Understanding the scope of architectural copyright protection – Via AIA
- Copyright in Landmarks – via TechnoLama
Here are just some of the locations I found listed in the iStock / Getty Images Intellectual Property Wiki (which is a list of some of the things they can’t accept as Royalty Free stock):
- Castles in Europe
- Moulin Rouge (Paris)
- Christ the Redeemer (Brazil)
- Japanese Temples and Shrines
- Sydney Opera House (Australia)
- The ‘Hollywood’ sign (California)
- Uluru (Ayer’s Rock – Australia)
- London Eye Millennium Wheel
- The Sears Tower (now known as ‘Willis’ – Chicago)
- The Hollywood Walk of Fame (California)
- The Louvre Museum and I.M. Pei’s Glass Pyramid (Paris)
- The Eiffel Tower at night (Paris)
- Private Universities and Colleges
- The Sistine Chapel (Vatican City)
- Taipei 101 (Taipei)
- The Burj Khalifa (Dubai)
- Burj Al Arab (Dubai)
- Transamerica Pyramid (San Francisco)
- British Royal Residents (UK)
- Tokyo Imperial Palace
- The works of Frank Lloyd Wright
- Casa Mila/La Pedrera by Antoni Gaudi (Barcelona)
- Churches (worldwide)
- Museums & Ticketed Locations
- Aquariums & Zoological Locations
Remember, this isn’t a complete list: Do your own research to be 100% sure you’ll not run into any issues before uploading an illustration of a building, landmark or location!
Vehicles, including cars, railways, boats, and so on are often problematic for RF stock. The more unique the design, the more likely you’ll be to run into issues. So if you’re drawing any type of vehicle make sure you’re steering very clear of any distinctive and original design elements of existing vehicles (especially when it comes to luxury vehicles and really original designs like the Volkswagen Beetle or the Mini Cooper). Here are some interesting vehicle-related IP links if you’d like to learn more:
- Automobile Designs: Protecting an investment in a legend with Intellectual Property – via CCBJ
- Vehicle Design Patents: Protection for the “Design” of Vehicles – via Klemchuk LLP
- Industrial Design Right – via Wikipedia
- John Deere Wins Trademark Lawsuit Over Green and Yellow Color Scheme – Via Trademark Access
- Mine the gap: Transport for London hopes to profit from licensing its brand overseas – Via The Guardian
- Airstream Gains Trademark for Trailer Design – Via RVBusiness
- Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway: Don’t Paint Our Trains – via PublicCitizen
Design Templates with Real Company Names
It’s so tempting to put in some kind of placeholder text when creating a design template such as a business card or website mockup. However you need to be very careful: Many simple sounding ‘fake’ company names, addresses, URLs and email addresses do in fact belong to real businesses and will likely be rejected for copyright/trademark reasons if you’re uploading them as Royalty Free stock illustrations.
You should stick to obviously fake contact info such as ‘Your Company Name’, ‘http://www.yourcompanyurl.com’, ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ and so on.
Miscellaneous Protected Subjects
Going through the Getty Images / iStock Intellectual Property Wiki to get links for this article, I came across a whole pile of other subjects that are problematic for licensing. Some of these might be surprising to illustrators so it’s a good idea to check these links out for more information:
- Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
- The Singapore National Flag
- Yellow Smiley Face Symbol
- Burberry Check Tartan Pattern
- Elvis & Elvis Impersonators
- Maps, Globes and Atlases
- Anglepoise Desk Lamps
- Devil-shaped Rubber Duckie
- Queen Elizabeth the Second (for example on currency)
- Currency – Paper Money / Bank Notes
- Van’s Skate Shoes
- Camouflage Patterns
- Goldfish Brand Crackers and Snacks
- Political Icons & Symbols (i.e. the Republican Elephant and Democratic Donkey)
- The ‘I Heart NY’ logo
- Remembrance Day Poppy (Royal Canadian Legion)
- Tiffany & Co, Shade of Blue
- Games (board games, cards, puzzles, etc)
- The Singapore Merlion
- The Paris Metro Sign
- Weber Barbecues
- Pine Tree Shaped Car Air Fresheners
- The Ampelmann Icon / ‘Walking Man – Standing Man’ (on pedestrian traffic signals in Berlin)
- Game Brand Rubber Duckies (i.e. duckies in sunglasses, etc)
- Shoes from Christian Louboutin (i.e. heels with red soles)
- The ViewMaster Children’s Toy
- Playing Cards (Patterns on the back, the design of the royal cards, etc)
- Shure Brand Microphones
- Nazi Symbols & Memorabilia (i.e. the swastika)
The IP Wiki is a good place to start searching whenever you’re planning a new illustration. But remember: This isn’t a comprehensive list of what you can and can’t sell as RF Stock! It’s just a good starting point.
You should always, ALWAYS be doing your own research before uploading because most microstock sites will hold you accountable for the content you are submitting.