Are you an artist or designer who has ever been tempted to trace a photograph to create your own artwork?

While tracing may seem like a harmless way to practice and develop your skills, it’s important to consider the potential legal and ethical implications.

Tracing from someone else’s photograph may be considered copyright infringement, which could lead to legal consequences.

This blog centers around the question: “Is tracing a photo copyright infringement?”

Understanding Copyright Law

The Copyright Act of 1957, which has undergone numerous amendments to meet the evolving demands of the creative and digital industries, governs copyright law in India.

The act strives to safeguard creators’ rights and the ownership of their original works by making sure that they are adequately compensated for their labor and that their works are not improperly utilised without their consent.

Types of Works Protected

The following types of works are eligible for copyright protection under the Indian Copyright Act:

  • Literary works, including books, computer programs, and databases
  • Dramatic works, such as plays, screenplays, and choreography
  • Musical works, including compositions and accompanying lyrics
  • Artistic works, such as paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and architectural works
  • Cinematograph films encompass the visual and auditory aspects of a film
  • Sound recordings, which include any recording of sound, regardless of the method of production.

Exception: Fair Use Doctrine

A significant exemption to copyright law is the fair use doctrine.

It permits the limited use of copyrighted works without the copyright holder’s consent, frequently for academic or research endeavors, news reporting, or critical analysis.

However, fair use is a complex area of law, and determining whether a specific use falls under fair use is not always straightforward.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when a person uses a copyrighted work without obtaining the necessary permission from the copyright holder or without qualifying for an exception under copyright law.

To understand if tracing a photo constitutes copyright infringement, we must first look at the elements of infringement and the exceptions provided by the law.

Elements of Copyright Infringement

To prove copyright infringement, the following elements must be established:

Valid copyright: The plaintiff must show that the work in question is protected by copyright.

This typically means that the work is original, fixed in a tangible medium, and falls within one of the categories protected by copyright law, such as literary, musical, or artistic works.

Ownership of the copyright: The plaintiff must demonstrate that they own the copyright to the work. This is usually straightforward if the plaintiff is the creator of the work.

However, if the copyright has been transferred or licensed, the plaintiff may need to provide documentation proving their ownership.

Copying of the protected work: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant copied the protected work. Direct evidence of copying is often difficult to obtain, so courts may look for circumstantial evidence, such as access to the work and substantial similarity between the two works.

Improper appropriation: The plaintiff must show that the defendant’s copying constitutes an improper appropriation of the copyrighted work.

This typically involves demonstrating that the two works are substantially similar and that the similarities pertain to the protected elements of the original work, rather than unprotected ideas or facts.

Unauthorised use: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s use of the copyrighted work was not authorised by the copyright holder, nor does it fall under an exception provided by copyright law, such as fair use or fair dealing.

By establishing these elements, the plaintiff can demonstrate that copyright infringement has occurred.

Related Article: Check out the linked article to learn more about the Elements of Copyright Infringement

What is Photo Tracing?

Photo tracing, also known as image tracing or simply tracing, is the process of creating a new artwork by closely following and replicating the lines, shapes, and forms of an existing photograph or image.

This technique is often used by artists and designers to create new works based on existing images, to improve their drawing skills, or to study the composition and structure of an image.

Discussion of the Different Techniques Used in Photo Tracing

There are several techniques used in photo tracing, which can be performed both traditionally and digitally:

Traditional Tracing: This method involves placing transparent or semi-transparent paper, such as tracing paper, over the original image and manually drawing over the lines and shapes with a pencil or pen.

This technique is often used by artists to practice their skills or to create preliminary sketches for more detailed artworks.

Digital Tracing: Digital tracing is performed using graphic design software or drawing applications, where the original photo is imported as a background layer, and a new layer is created on top for tracing.

The artist then uses a digital pen or stylus to draw over the original photo, replicating its lines and shapes.

Digital tracing can be a more precise and efficient method, as it allows for easy editing and manipulation of the traced artwork.

Vectorization: This technique involves converting a raster image (composed of pixels) into a vector image (composed of geometric shapes and lines) using specialised software.

The software analyses the original image and generates a new, scalable vector version of it, which can be further edited and refined by the artist.

Examples of Photo Tracing

Character Design: Artists may trace photographs of people or animals to create new characters for animations, comic books, or video games.

Tracing helps artists accurately capture the proportions, anatomy, and poses of the subjects in the original images.

Architectural Sketches: Architects and designers may trace photographs of buildings or structures to create detailed, accurate sketches and plans for new projects or renovations.

Graphic Design: Graphic designers may trace photographs or illustrations to create logos, icons, or other design elements for marketing materials, websites, or products.

Study and Practice: Artists at all skill levels may use photo tracing as a learning tool to study and practice the techniques of drawing, composition, and rendering.

Tracing can help artists develop a better understanding of the structure and form of their subjects and improve their overall drawing skills.

Is Tracing a Photo Copyright Infringement?

Tracing a picture may be considered copyright infringement under certain circumstances, depending on the specifics of each case and the manner in which the traced image is utilised.

When Tracing Might Be Infringement

Here are the factors that could determine if tracing picture results in copyright infringement:

  • Derivative works: If the traced image qualifies as a derivative work, which means it is based on an existing copyrighted work, it might infringe on the original creator’s copyright.
  • Substantial similarity: If the traced image is substantially similar to the original work, it could be deemed copyright infringement. Substantial similarity is determined by comparing the two works and evaluating whether an ordinary observer would perceive them as similar.
  • Unauthorised use: If the tracing is utilised without permission from the copyright holder, it could constitute copyright infringement, unless it falls under an exception provided by copyright law.

Here are some examples to help illustrate when tracing a photo may be considered copyright infringement:

Art Reproduction: An artist traces a famous painting and sells prints of the traced artwork without obtaining permission from the copyright holder or considering fair use.

In this case, the artist is reproducing a substantial portion of the original work and profiting from it, which can be considered copyright infringement.

Tracing a Photograph for Commercial Use: A graphic designer traces a photograph taken by a professional photographer and uses the traced image in a marketing campaign for a product without obtaining permission from the photographer.

In this situation, the traced image is used for commercial purposes, which may constitute copyright infringement.

Copying Character Designs: An illustrator traces images of copyrighted characters from a comic book, movie, or video game and creates new artwork featuring those characters, which is then sold as posters or merchandise.

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This act of copying the original character designs and using them for commercial gain can be considered copyright infringement.

Tracing an Image for a Logo: A company traces a photograph or illustration protected by copyright to create its logo without obtaining permission from the copyright holder.

In this case, the logo, which is derived from the original copyrighted image, may be considered an infringement, as it reproduces a substantial portion of the original work.

It’s essential to understand that each case is unique, and whether tracing a photo is considered copyright infringement depends on the specific circumstances.

To minimise the risk of copyright infringement, always consider alternatives such as obtaining permission, using public domain or Creative Commons-licensed images, or creating your own original artwork.

Related Articles: Check out the following linked articles to learn about them:

When Tracing is Not Infringement

There are instances where tracing a photo may not be considered copyright infringement:

Educational or Personal Use

If the tracing is done for educational purposes or personal use, it may fall under the fair use exception.

However, this depends on the specific circumstances and the four factors of fair use:

  • purpose and character of the use,
  • nature of the copyrighted work,
  • amount and substantiality of the portion used, and
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Public Domain Works

Tracing works that are in the public domain is generally considered legitimate, as their copyright protection has expired or been forfeited.

Public domain works can be used freely by anyone without permission.

Creative Commons Licenses

If the source image is released under a Creative Commons license and the person tracing the image adheres to the specific terms of that license, the tracing may be considered legitimate.

Permission from the Copyright Holder

Tracing is likely to be considered legitimate if the person tracing the image has obtained permission from the copyright holder to use the source imagery and follows any specific terms and conditions outlined by the copyright holder.

Parody or Satire

If the tracing is used to create a parody or satire of the original work, it may be considered fair use.

However, this depends on the specifics of the case and the extent to which the new work transforms or comments on the original.

Misappropriation in Tracing a Photo

Misappropriation refers to the unauthorised use of someone else’s work, idea, or property for personal gain.

In the context of tracing a photo, misappropriation occurs when an individual trace a copyrighted image without permission from the copyright holder and uses the traced work for their own benefit.

This unauthorised use can lead to copyright infringement, as the traced work may be considered a derivative of the original image.

Examples of misappropriation in tracing a photo include:

Creating Art for Sale: An artist traces a copyrighted photograph and sells the resulting artwork without obtaining permission from the copyright holder. This unauthorised use for commercial gain constitutes misappropriation and may lead to legal consequences.

Using Traced Art in Promotional Materials: A graphic designer traces a copyrighted image and incorporates the traced artwork into promotional materials for a client, without obtaining the necessary permissions.

This unauthorised use may result in copyright infringement and legal action against the designer and their client.

Sharing Traced Art on Social Media: An individual traces a copyrighted photo and shares the resulting artwork on social media without crediting the original photographer or obtaining permission.

This act of sharing the traced work publicly without proper authorisation can also be considered misappropriation.

To What Extent can Tracing from a Photo be Used to Prevent Copyright Infringement?

Determining how much tracing can be done from a photo to avoid copyright infringement depends on various factors, such as whether the tracing falls under fair use or whether permission has been granted by the copyright holder.

It’s essential to consider the specific circumstances of each case, as there is no definitive rule on how much tracing can be done without infringing on copyright.

Here’s an example to help illustrate how a person might trace a photo without infringing on copyright:

Example: A graphic designer is working on an advertising campaign for a sports brand and wants to use a photograph of a basketball player as inspiration for the main design element.

Instead of tracing the entire photo and reproducing a substantial portion of the original image, the designer could:

  • Focus on a specific element: The designer may trace only a small, non-essential part of the photo, such as the basketball or the player’s shoes, and then create an original design based on that element. By tracing only a small portion of the photo and incorporating it into a new, unique design, the designer may avoid copyright infringement.
  • Use tracing for inspiration, not replication: The designer could use the photograph as a reference and study the pose, anatomy, and proportions of the basketball player, but create an entirely original illustration without directly tracing the photo. By using the photo as inspiration rather than copying it directly, the designer is more likely to avoid copyright infringement.
  • Transformative use: The designer may trace the photograph to create a new work that significantly alters the original image, adding new meaning or expression, such as a caricature or an abstract representation. This transformative use may be considered fair use and help avoid copyright infringement.

It’s important to note that the specific circumstances of each case will determine whether tracing a photo constitutes copyright infringement.

Copyrighted Clicks: Elements to Avoid when Tracing Photos

To avoid copyright infringement when tracing a photo, it is essential to understand which elements of the photo are protected under copyright.

Copyright protection typically extends to the original, creative aspects of a photograph, such as:

Composition: The arrangement of elements within the photo, including the positioning of subjects, the choice of foreground and background elements, and the balance of visual elements within the frame. This includes the overall layout, angles, and juxtaposition of objects within the image.

Lighting: The creative use of light and shadow, which can include the photographer’s decisions regarding the direction, intensity, and quality of the light, as well as the use of artificial light sources or natural light.

Color: The colors in a photograph, including the overall color palette, saturation, and any color grading applied by the photographer, may be protected under copyright, as they contribute to the overall appearance and mood of the image.

Perspective: The photographer’s choice of viewpoint or angle from which the photo is taken can impact the spatial relationships between the elements in the image and create a sense of depth or dimension.

Background and Setting: The background and setting of a photograph, including the choice of location, scenery, and any props or staging, may be protected under copyright if they contribute to the uniqueness and originality of the image.

Subject Matter: The primary subject of a photograph, such as a person, animal, or object, may be protected under copyright, especially if the photographer has captured the subject in a unique way or with a distinctive perspective.

Editing and Post-Processing: Any editing or post-processing techniques applied by the photographer, such as retouching, cropping, or adding filters and effects, may be protected under copyright if they contribute to the originality of the image.

Timing: In some cases, the timing of a photograph, such as capturing a specific moment, expression, or event, can contribute to its originality and be protected under copyright.

The Potential Upsides of Tracing for Copyright Owners

Tracing an image could potentially have some positive impacts on the copyright owner of the original image, depending on the context and circumstances.

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Here are some examples:

  • Increased Exposure: If the traced image is shared online and properly attributed to the original artist, it could lead to increased exposure and recognition for their work.
  • Collaborative Works: If the tracer obtains permission from the original artist to create a traced work, it could lead to a collaborative relationship between the two artists and potentially result in new creative works.
  • Licensing Opportunities: If the original artist licenses their work for reuse, tracing and creating derivative works could provide additional revenue streams for the artist.
  • Inspiration: Tracing an image could inspire the tracer to create their own original work, possibly leading to a new direction in their creative process.

It’s important to note that these potential positive impacts would only apply in situations where the tracer has obtained proper permission or is using images that are in the public domain or licensed for reuse.

If the tracer is using copyrighted images without permission, it could still be considered copyright infringement and harm the original artist’s interests.

Impact of Tracing On Original Artist and Tracer

Tracing an original artist’s work can have different impacts on both the original artist and the tracer.

On the original artist:

  • Diminished Value: Tracing can reduce the perceived value of the original work, as it can be seen as a reproduction or a copy of the original work.
  • Copyright Issues: If the original work is protected by copyright, tracing and using the traced work without permission could be considered copyright infringement, which can harm the artist’s reputation and financial interests.
  • Attribution: If the tracer does not attribute the original work to the artist, it can lead to confusion and a loss of recognition for the original artist’s work.

On the tracer:

  • Lack of Originality: Tracing can lead to a lack of originality in the tracer’s work, as it relies heavily on the original artist’s ideas and creativity.
  • Limited Skills Development: Tracing may limit the development of the tracer’s skills and ability to create original work, as it relies on copying rather than creating something new.
  • Ethical Concerns: Tracing can raise ethical concerns about plagiarism and copyright infringement, which can harm the tracer’s reputation and credibility.

How to Avoid Copyright Violation While Tracing a Picture?

To avoid copyright infringement when tracing a photo, consider the following tips:

Avoid tracing the protected elements: Refrain from directly tracing the composition, lighting, color, perspective, or subject matter of a copyrighted photo.

Instead, focus on creating your own original artwork or only tracing non-essential elements that are not protected by copyright.

Tracing only parts of a photo that do not contribute to its originality, such as generic objects or backgrounds, may help avoid copyright infringement.

Using the photo as inspiration, not replication: Study the photograph for its composition, lighting, or subject matter, but create a new, original work without directly tracing the protected elements.

Transformative use: If you trace a copyrighted photo, ensure that your work significantly alters the original image, adding new meaning or expression, and can be considered transformative. This may help your work fall under the fair use exception.

Use public domain or Creative Commons-licensed images: To minimise the risk of copyright breach, consider tracing images that are in the public domain or released under Creative Commons licenses, which allow for more flexible use of the work.

Obtain permission: If you want to trace elements of a copyrighted photo, consider obtaining permission from the copyright holder and adhering to any specific terms and conditions they outline.

Remember that each case is unique, and whether tracing a photo is considered copyright infringement depends on the specific circumstances.

Always exercise caution and consider alternatives to ensure your work does not infringe on copyrighted material.

Cracking the Copyright Code: Factors to Consider in Determining Image Protection

To determine if the source imagery is protectable under copyright law, consider the following factors:

  • Originality: For a work to be protected by copyright, it must be original. This means that the work must have been independently created by the author and possess a minimal degree of creativity. In the context of imagery, the composition, arrangement of elements, and other creative choices made by the photographer or artist contribute to the originality of the work.
  • Fixation: Copyright protection applies to works that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. This means that the work must be recorded, written, drawn, or captured in a form that is stable and can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for more than a short period. In the case of imagery, photographs, paintings, drawings, and digital images are all examples of fixed works eligible for copyright protection.
  • Nature of the Work: The nature of the work plays a role in determining its protectability. Creative and artistic works, such as photographs or illustrations, are generally more likely to receive copyright protection than factual or informational works. However, even factual or informational works may still be protected by copyright if they contain a sufficient level of originality in their presentation or arrangement.

If the source imagery meets these criteria, it is likely protectable under copyright law, granting the copyright holder exclusive rights to reproduce, distribute, display, and create derivative works based on the original work.

Unauthorised use of copyrighted imagery, such as tracing, may be considered copyright infringement, depending on the specific circumstances and factors like fair use or the creation of derivative works.

Adding Originality and Creativity to Traced Works: Example

Adding originality and creativity to traced works involves transforming the traced elements and incorporating your own artistic style and ideas to create a unique piece of art.

Here are some ways to add originality and creativity to traced works which can easily be understood with the help of the following example.

Let’s say you want to create a unique piece of artwork based on a famous photograph of a city skyline.

To add originality and creativity to the traced work, you can follow these steps:

Experiment with Styles: Instead of tracing the photograph in a realistic style, you could choose to create a stylised or semi-abstract version of the skyline.

For example, you might decide to use bold, geometric shapes to represent the buildings or employ a loose, impressionistic style with expressive brushstrokes.

Combine Elements from Multiple Sources: To make the composition more unique, you could incorporate elements from other reference images, such as adding a dramatic sunset sky from a different photograph or inserting a famous landmark from another city.

Personalise the Artwork: To add a personal touch to the skyline, you could include symbols or patterns that are meaningful to you.

For example, you might decide to add a silhouette of a bird flying across the sky to represent freedom or incorporate a hidden pattern of stars within the buildings to symbolise hope and dreams.

Manipulate the Color Scheme: Instead of using the original colors from the photograph, you could apply a new color scheme to your traced artwork.

For instance, you might choose a monochromatic color scheme with various shades of blue to evoke a calming, serene atmosphere.

Alter the Composition: To make the traced work more unique, you could change the arrangement of the buildings or add new elements to the composition.

For example, you might decide to move certain buildings closer together to create a more dynamic skyline or add a river and bridge in the foreground to provide additional depth and interest.

Create a Story or Context: To add originality and depth to your traced artwork, you could develop a narrative or context for the piece.

For example, you might imagine that the city skyline represents a futuristic, utopian society and add elements such as flying cars, solar panels, and green rooftops to support this narrative.

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Focus on Skill Development: As you trace the city skyline, use this opportunity to practice and refine your drawing skills, such as perspective, shading, and line work.

As you become more proficient in these techniques, your traced artwork will naturally evolve and become more original and creative.

By following these steps and incorporating your own artistic style and ideas, you can transform the traced city skyline into a unique and original piece of art that showcases your creativity and skill.

Can I Post Trace Images on Social Media Legally?

Posting a traced image on social media could potentially be considered copyright infringement if the original image is protected by copyright and you do not have permission to use it or create derivative works from it.

However, if the original image is in the public domain or if you have obtained permission to use it, then posting the traced image may be legal.

It’s important to note that just because something is posted on social media does not mean it is legal to use or share.

Always make sure you have the proper permissions and understand the copyright status of the original image before posting a traced image or any other derivative work online.

Responding to an Infringement Notice for Tracing an Image

If you receive an infringement notice for tracing an image, it’s important to take the matter seriously and respond appropriately.

Here are some steps you can take:

Review the Notice: Carefully review the infringement notice to understand the allegations and the specific image in question.

Seek Legal Advice: Consider seeking legal advice from a lawyer with experience in copyright law. They can help you understand your options and advise you on how to respond.

Remove the Image: If the notice is valid, remove the traced image from any online platforms and/or any other place where you have used it.

Respond to the Notice: If you believe the notice is not valid, you may choose to respond to the copyright owner or their representative, explaining your position and providing any evidence to support it.

Settlement Negotiation: You may negotiate a settlement or licensing agreement with the copyright owner or their representative to resolve the matter.

Future Prevention: To avoid potential infringement issues in the future, make sure to use only images that are in the public domain, licensed for reuse, or have obtained permission from the copyright owner to use and create derivative works.

It’s important to handle any infringement notice promptly and carefully, as it could have legal and financial consequences if not addressed properly.


It is important to note that photo tracing, like any other form of copying or derivative work, can potentially infringe on someone else’s intellectual property rights, such as copyright or trademark.

Therefore, it is essential to obtain permission or ensure that the photo is not protected by such rights before proceeding with photo tracing.

In general, when using a photograph as a reference for photo tracing, it is advisable to use it only as a loose guide and not to copy it entirely.

This means that the traced image should not be an exact replica of the original photograph but rather a new and original interpretation of it.

For example, let’s say a graphic designer wants to create a logo for a new coffee shop and finds a photograph of a coffee cup that they like.

Instead of directly tracing the photograph, they can use it as a reference to create a new illustration of a coffee cup that is unique and not a direct copy of the original photograph.

This way, they can avoid infringing on any potential trademark or copyright issues.

In general, it is best to err on the side of caution and consult a legal professional if there is any doubt about the legality of photo tracing a particular photograph.


What is a derivative work?

A derivative work is a new work based on an existing copyrighted work, such as a translation, adaptation, or work that incorporates elements of the original work.

What is fair use?

Fair use is a legal doctrine that allows for the limited use of copyrighted works without permission from the copyright holder, typically for purposes like education, research, news reporting, or criticism.

How can I determine if a work is in the public domain?

A work enters the public domain when its copyright expires or when the creator relinquishes their rights.

Researching the work’s copyright status or checking public domain databases can help determine if a work is in the public domain.

What are creative commons licenses?

Creative Commons licenses are a set of standardised licenses that allow creators to specify how their works can be used, often allowing for various levels of sharing and modification.

These licenses aim to facilitate the sharing and reuse of creative works while still respecting the rights of creators.

How can I obtain permission to use a copyrighted work?

To obtain permission to use a copyrighted work, you may need to contact the creator directly or work with a licensing agency that manages the rights to the work.

Permissions may come in the form of a license or a written agreement.

If I trace my own existing design, is it infringement?

If you trace over your own existing design, it would not be considered copyright infringement, as you are the owner of the original work.

However, if the original design was inspired or influenced by someone else’s work, there could still be potential issues with plagiarism or derivative work.

It’s important to make sure that your design does not infringe on any existing copyrights or intellectual property rights. If you are unsure, it’s recommended that you seek legal advice or do further research on the subject.

Can I sell traced images online?

Selling a traced image online without permission from the copyright owner could be considered copyright infringement and could result in legal consequences.

It’s important to obtain permission or a license from the copyright owner before selling a traced image online.

If you’re unsure whether your use of the traced image is legal, it’s always a good idea to seek legal advice.

Is it ethical to trace copyrighted or other photos online?

Tracing copyrighted or other photos online without permission can potentially be considered unethical and could infringe on the copyright owner’s rights.

It’s always a good idea to obtain permission from the copyright owner before tracing their work.

Which websites can be used to take free images for tracing?

There are several websites that offer free images that can be used for tracing, as long as they are properly attributed and used within the terms of the license. Here are some examples:

a. Unsplash: Unsplash offers a large collection of high-quality, royalty-free images that can be used for tracing and other creative projects.
b. Pixabay: Pixabay is another popular website that offers free images, including vectors and illustrations that can be used for tracing.
c. Pexels: Pexels offers a wide variety of free images that can be used for tracing, including photos and illustrations.
d. Freepik: Freepik offers a large collection of free vector images and graphics that can be used for tracing.

It’s important to check the license and attribution requirements for each website before using any images for tracing, as some may have specific terms and conditions.

Additionally, it’s recommended to always obtain permission from the original artist or copyright owner if possible, to avoid any potential legal issues.