What types of software and design tools are people using?
Can you send hand-drawn art or computer files to companies that make cuts and plates? Can you cut your own plates from hand-drawn or digital art?
What material is available for printing? Am I correct to assume that you cannot print copyrighted material but only original designs, designs you have permission, and those in the public domain such as clipart?
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I only know things from the artist-side of printing, but any decent graphic designer or digital illustrator can take your hand-drawn work and recreate it in vector format for plate making. The most common applications for making print-ready artwork are the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, Illustrator, etc) and Corel Draw and Photopaint.
A large bookstore with an art section would have catalogs chock-full of free domain artwork, and it is all scanable and legal. And while you’re at the book store, track down a legal guide to image licensing and copyrights.
I’d say Adobe Illustrator is the most important tool for making negatives for plates these days. All of your image (text and graphics) should be vector, which will ensure the highest resolution when you get your negative made. Illustrator is entirely vector-based: anything you create in Illustrator (without importing anything) will be in vector form, and the newest versions of Illustrator (CS2, CS3) come with LiveTrace software that automatically turns raster files into vectors (with mixed results). You can also trace things by hand to turn them into vector images.
Any prepress service should be able to make a negative for you from your Illustrator file. Make sure they know it’s for letterpress, though: if they don’t think there’s any difference, find a better company. (This is complicated: basically, most of the film they make is for offset printing, for which you need the image in a certain orientation on the side of the film that touches the plate. For letterpress, the orientation is reversed. If the orientation is wrong, your plate will either be backwards or not as sharp.) Then you can take or send that film to a place that makes photopolymer plates, like Mackenzie and Harris in San Francisco, or Boxcar Press (they make the negatives, too — save you a step.)
As for printing copyrighted work…. I do it. It depends what you do with it, and what you’re going to do with it. Namely, are you selling it? If not, do whatever the hell you want. If you are going to profit from it, have you turned it into something different enough from the original that you can claim that it’s yours? Tread carefully. Read about copyright law. And, when possible, get permission, even if you don’t need it.