Among the many questions about intellectual property (IP) rights, one of the most interesting I’ve come across is, "Are pictures of money copyrighted?” Sure, we’ve all had fleeting thoughts of printing out our own money and retiring to a beach somewhere to live like royalty, before the realities of things like prison and more prison snap us back to reality. But behind such fanciful thoughts is a more salient question regarding the legality of using images of currency for artistic or creative purposes. So what are the rules as it regards images of money?
According to the Secret Service, US law, “sharply restricts photographs or other printed reproductions of paper currency, checks, bonds, revenue stamps, and securities of the United States and foreign governments.” That the government doesn’t want anyone to attempt to replicate exact copies of $100 bills or government bonds hardly comes as a surprise, and it’s generally inadvisable to photograph checks that display checking account and bank routing numbers for mass consumption.
There are, however, conditions by which you can create illustrated reproductions of paper currency under the Counterfeit Detection Act of 1992:
- The illustrations have to be less than three-quarters smaller or one-and-a-half times larger, in lineal dimension, than the original.
- The illustrations have to be one-sided.
- Any negatives, proofs, plates, or storage mediums that feature an image of the illustration have to be destroyed after their final use.
The same restrictions are placed upon any reproduction of other US obligations or securities, or reproductions of foreign currencies within the US. As far as coinage is concerned, there are no restrictions on taking photographs or creating illustrations, as there is no chance of a paper illustration of a quarter being mistaken for an actual coin (should you find a merchant willing to accept pictures of coins as legal tender, please let me know, as I have a bridge I’d be willing to sell them).
What about stamps?
There have been stamps honoring all sorts of things, events, and people, so surely someone may want to incorporate those images into their own projects. The rules for colorized illustrations of uncancelled stamps fall under the same restrictions as currency, in that they need to be either substantively smaller or larger than actual stamps. Black and white illustrations of stamps of any kind as well as color illustrations of cancelled stamps are permitted without restrictions.
Whatever your next creative endeavor is, you’ll find it is worth doing research on usage and ownership rights if you plan to use any material you’re unsure about. Otherwise, a fake representation of money can land you with some real legal fees.
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