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« Welcome to the first day of the rest of your teaching career | Main | The 140 character discussion »

Library murals - a pet peeve

I was visiting one of our elementary libraries last week where I saw a sketch of a mural that was to be painted on one of the walls this summer. The main character was Mouse from Numeroff's If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, illustrated by Felicia Bond. I asked the librarian if she had permission to use this character in the mural. She didn't know. I advised her to check.

Common characters from children's books are not uncommon to find painted on library and school walls. Do a GoogleImage search on "library murals" and you will find:



So what's the big deal? I just wonder how many of these schools and libraries got permission to use these copyrighted images? My guess is few or none.

Do we really need to worry that Theodore Geisel's heirs will starve since the estate won't be collecting royalties? Could this use of images be covered by "fair use" provisions? Does the larger goal of getting kids to read supersede intellectual property law?

All debatable, I suppose.

But such use bothers me for more pragmatic reasons...

  1. What is the message about intellectual property use we are sending to students? It's OK to be a scofflaw? 
  2. What is the message we are sending to parents about how our schools respect copyright law? Do you have parents in your district who make their living from their creative work?
  3. Are we showing disrespect for our local talent in not using local artists to display their imaginative work? Could personal visual imagining of Harry Potter or Paul Bunyan or Jo March be as good an inducement for reading as Charlie Brown or Super Diaper Baby? Should be honor our local authors, artists, stories and legends? 

I love going to my schools where local artists have created some truly wonderful art for decorating the walls and hallways. 



I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that you have local talent that would put original, interesting, local images on your walls that would get kids excited about reading and respect copyright laws. 

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.


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Reader Comments (14)

It's a pet peeve of mine too! I've been trying to get the character murals out of one of our libraries for 15 years....

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCheri Dobbs

Agreed, along with the corollary of characters used on school hallway murals and bulletin boards. My "favorite" response when mentioning copyright violations to teachers? "Oh, they won't catch us here". That is supposed to make it okay!?

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBetsy

I'm over the whole mural thing anyway. I'm tired of forests and castles and princesses and such as well. I much prefer some nice color palettes and/or cool posters (which are more easily changed). I've also seen section areas painted on walls (in ornate mural form), then when things get moved around, oops!

June 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJim Randolph

Even though I think asking permission is a) the right thing to do and b) should be modeled for our staff and students, ideologically, I struggle with copyright law as it is currently written as I think it does the exact opposite of what it was intended to do - encourage the creative arts. So... I'm not inclined to see patent holders as the underdogs in these situations.

HOWEVER, breaking the law is not only wrong, it's just asking for trouble. I personally worked for a school where we had to rip up a gym floor and start over because the logo we'd chosen for our sports team happened to belong to a much bigger and more powerful franchise AND, of course, we had not obtained permission to use it. To this day, I can only imagine how many instructional materials could have been purchased with the money spent on floor #2 (never mind floor #1). That said, cease and disist letters are NOT the stuff of urban legends and given how much we share about our spaces online the chances of "getting caught" are much higher than we all think.

In the end, I will continue to wish the law did more to protect the creative process than the financial interests of patent holders, while also reminding students, teachers and administrators that this is one situation in which asking permission first is BETTER than seeking forgiveness later. :)

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Thank you for this post! I have always felt exactly the same way.

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Wilson

You can see part of our student and art teacher created mural in our library. Love it!

June 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeanna

Hi Cheri,

Well, I hope you have better luck than I have had. It's not something worth making a huge stink about, I suppose, but I do let principals know (in writing) of the problem and I save the e-mail so I feel I've done due diligence.

Thanks for the comment,



Maybe there is a "murals anonymous" group one can join.


Hi Jennifer,

I purposely stretch copyright and fair use as humanly possible. I agree 100% that it is broken. (I've written extensively about this.)

Here I see a clear alternative to using copyrighted works that is BETTER. And I worry about the signal we send kids - if we don't agree with a law, it's OK to bend, stretch or ignore it???


Very nice, Deanna. Thanks for sharing this.


June 5, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I absolutely adore the photography wall at the Iowa City Public Library. It's full of photos of things out in the world making alphabet letters. Clever!

June 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterColleen Theisen


The Iowa City Public Library has always been a class act. I was one of the volunteers who moved books from the old library to the new one when it opened (early '80s, I think).

Go Hawkeyes!


June 8, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Legal zoom says: Transformative Use
Another way to legally use Disney characters could be to use them in what the law refers to as "transformative use." Transformative use requires that you change, or transform, the character enough so that it is no longer a mere copy of the original. The resulting transformation is sometimes called a "derivative work." For example, if a painter created an original oil painting of his family and included the Disney character Tinkerbell as a family member, his use of Tinkerbell would be fair use because of its commentary that the artist considers Tinkerbell a member of his family. The use of Tinkerbell in the painting could be could be characterized as a transformative use, and the painting could be called a derivative work.

October 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTerry A

I KNOW!!! As the school art teacher in 3 different schools, I often get asked to do character murals in schools and also local spots. I often tell people I won't do character murals -- original artwork only, and that's usually the end of the conversation. It is sad that people usually don't want original work.

October 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Recco

HI Rebecca,

I don't know why local artists and talent aren't more honored in schools. I'd say we are 75% local and 25% copyright violations! I like the original stuff a lot more.

Keep up the good fight,


October 7, 2014 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'm a professional mural artist and I think you may be jumping to conclusions. I ask permission from publisher, receive written consent and file it with the county- the librarian would probably had no idea. Murals in school are often donated and artists don't receive payment. Most publisher are fine if no profits are collected, and characters of books on the walls promote the book and encourage children to search for books.

June 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMartist

Hi Martist,

Thank you for that information. I hope all mural artists are as ethical. I like it when "Used with permission" is some part of the work displayed to send a good message to kids.


June 22, 2016 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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