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Where does that leave you then, if all artists have a major stick up the nether regions when it comes to their precious artwork? I have interviewed dozens of Elfwood artists on this topic and they all said the same thing. If you want to use it, ask first. Not only most are more then willing to give permission, you never know you might run into an exceptionally nice artist who would do more just because you are considerate enough to ask first. There was one roleplayer who told me that the artist he asked gave him permission to use not just the image he asked for, but any of her artwork he might want in the future. Another artist discovered that the character of the roleplayer had a different color of eyes from the image and adjusted a copy especially for her!
What happens of you do not ask and get busted later? Very few of the interviewed Elfwood artists would show mercy. Another worthy note is that news travels fast on the artist network. If one artist gets screwed, the whole community will hear about it.
Altering images without permission is also not looked upon kindly. People with a faint grasp of copyright lore have actually claimed that once they alter someone else's image, it now belongs to them. If it were that easy, we artists will be out of business. If you are planning to change the original image, you must have the artist's permission to do so.
Here comes the useful part...how to obtain a picture without getting into trouble later.
Some professional artists allow use of their work as long as they get a visible reciprocating link. Check the FAQ in their official website if you are not sure. On that note, always go for the official websites, rather then nameless archives. Artists are used to getting such requests so they usually already have an answer ready. Don't bother them with emails unless you really have to.
Elfwood is a good source as well. The talent there varies from absurd to amazing, and as stated earlier, most are happy to oblige if asked. They would usually ask for a reciprocating link in return. You may even find artists who take personal commissions for a small fee or for free. Elfwood also has a Picture Request (link) forum where anyone can post a request, and anyone can pick it up. Remember, it is always nice to ask first before you assume someone will take your request. I receive character descriptions from time to time and am always annoyed at the guy's assumption that I'm available for commissions. Annoyed enough to say no.
If you wonder what all the copyright fuss is about, learn more about the rights you get as a creator at http://www.whatiscopyright.org and know your rights when you create a character or game. The Ten Common Copyright Myths (http://www.copylaw.com/articles/copy_myths.html) is also an enlightening read.
The Amethyst Alliance, Conclave of Arts and Roleplayers Against Defamation, Infringement of Copyright And Libel (RADICAL) support the rights of the creator and promote copyright awareness in the RPG community.