Can originally public images be altered and then stop others from using the "new" images?
I was looking at a mug shot of a person mentioned in one of my hubs at one of those mugshot-type sites. It said the mug shot image they showed was originally public but they "marked" it with their own text and threatened to come after anyone who used their image. Is this kosher? Can you turn something public into "yours" simply by altering it? This whole copyright thing is getting out of hand. Unfortunately, I haven't yet found the original.
No, you may not use someone else's image and claim it as yours.
By 'public' do you mean 'public domain' (copyright free) images?
If so, anyone can use the original image for their own use, and edit/amend it. Once the images are in the 'public domain' they are there forever for anyone to use.
However, you cannot use the 'derivative' of it, i.e. if someone else alters the image that was originally in the public domain, they basically make it their 'own', so you can't use their version.
If you can find the original image then you can do anything with it.
Specifically on mugshot photos... a lot of those sites that are doing arrest reporting are doing this with mugshot photos. No matter what they say, these photos are public domain because they are taken by government agencies. And since those places don't usually have any photos that aren't already online by checking the official state website then visiting their department of corrections, I just bypass those people all together and use the photos from the prison record.
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