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The Internet is a wonderful resource of free information, but we often forget that the information came from people who worked hard to learn it first before sharing it with the world out of the goodness of their hearts. For free.
So you are a roleplayer. Every roleplayer eventually want a picture that shows in one glance, what their character is all about. And the Internet host thousands of artists with a few hundred thousand examples of their work. All ripe for the picking, right?
Wrong. When artists put their work up online, it is clear that they want to be seen. One of the most common defenses put up by roleplayers I've talked to is, "If they don't want us to use their art, they shouldn't have put it online!" A rather poor excuse - like a shoplifter saying, "If the shop don't want their goods to be lifted, they shouldn't have displayed them."
The issue of digitized images is often confusing. People may realize that stealing John Doe's framed oil painting from the gallery is a crime, but don't see anything wrong with right-clicking to save the same painting in its JPEG format from the gallery's website and using it to decorate their own website or to post in newsgroups. This attitude is perhaps the bane to the new generation of artists, who work in nothing but digital art.
The first thing we need to understand is that artwork, whether in its traditional form of canvas and paint, or in the now popular digital form of JPEGs and GIFs, are automatically copyrighted to its creator upon the moment of creation. Copyright gives the creator a number of rights, including distribution and profit from sales.
Controlled distribution, whether displaying in a personal gallery or submission to selected galleries, will give the artist some exposure and publicity. Unauthorized distribution might have a negative impact as this method usually disregards ownership and only dilutes the value of the artwork. In other words, whenever you see a website displaying numerous pieces of art without names attached to them, it is very likely that the artists are unaware of their work being there. Even famous names fall prey to this. There are image archives that blatantly display and distribute artwork by Michael Whelan, Boris Vallejo and many others, and it is highly unlikely that the artists know or approve of it.
"But it is free publicity!" perpetrators of the latter group protested. Wrong again. Whelan stated his views clearly in the FAQ of his website regarding the usage of his work (http://www.michaelwhelan.com/index.asp?vsPage=faq). Vallejo does not distribute his work via dubious-sounding archives either. He expresses his views in his own FAQ (http://www.imaginistix.com/faq.cfm). Never assume that taking it into your hands to give them 'free publicity' will compensate for that fact you did not bother asking them if you can use their work. It does not. You can be sued for it.