The most common copyright questions asked by artists: Answered!
Art Is My Career | 20th April 2023
The world of copyright can feel like a legal minefield for many new artists. Whether you are an artist, painter, crafter or maker, knowing how to legally protect your hard work could be the difference between success and failure. Understanding how copyright works for art is crucial to know the powers and protections that you are entitled to.
To make things simpler for you, we’ve compiled the most comprehensive list of questions asked by artists about copyrighting their work.
Most common copyright questions asked by artists:
1. What actually is copyright?
Copyright is the legal right you have to create an original piece of artwork and have protection over that artwork for a certain period of time. This prevents people from stealing or exploiting your work without giving you proper accreditation or income. Has this ever happened to you before?
To be really clear about the laws of copyright here is a quote from the Copyright.gov website!
As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.
Copyright actually comprises three elements, which are focused around the economic protection of a piece of art.
- Reproduction right (the legal right to authorise or not the copying of the work)
- Distribution right (the legal right to authorise or not the distribution of the work)
- Communication right (the right to authorise or prohibit any communication to the public of their works, by wire or wireless means, including the making available to the public of their works in such a way that members of the public may access them from a place and at a time individually chosen by them.
The finer points of copyright law vary between countries, so its important to check with your national government.
2. Is an artist’s work automatically copyrighted?
Yes, copyright automatically applies to the work you create without the need for registration or any application. However, you may need to seek further copyright registrations in order to defend your copyright in a court of law.
3. How much does it cost to copyright artwork?
Copyright applies to any work you create for free as a legal right, however, if you wish to protect and defend your copyright in court (in the case of an infringement) you may need to have legally registered your copyrights which can incur a fee in most countries.
Check with your local government how to register your copyright. In the US you would need to contact the Copyright Office of the U.S Library of Congress who can advise you further.
4. How do I copyright my artwork?
Copyright is automatic, you don’t need to do anything in order to own the copyright for a piece of work you have created. However, unless you have registered your copyright it can be difficult to prove as your own work and defend it legally. Contact your local government’s intellectual property office to find out more about registering your art (this can incur a fee). Record keeping is very important if you ever need to prove the work is your own.
5. Does an artist retain copyright?
Copyright lasts for the duration of an artist’s life plus 70 years in most cases.
6. Is all art protected by copyright?
Most types of art are fully protected by copyright laws including painting, graphic works, photographs, sculptures, collages, works of architecture and other works of artistic craftsmanship.
7. What happens when someone infringes on your artist’s copyright?
Always report copyright violations to the offending party as soon as possible. Many online platforms offer copyright violation reporting and support, they are your first port of call. Most people who infringe on your copyright will be naïve to the law or simply hope you wont notice. In these cases, they will usually remove the offending work and cease selling it once you’ve informed them of the violation. In more persistent or prolific cases its always best to seek legal advice before proceeding.
8. Can you copyright an artistic style?
No, copyright does not protect an art style, only the finished work itself.
9. Am I allowed to use other people’s reference photographs?
All this copyright law also applies to photographs, so be aware when you are using reference images to create your artwork. If you see a picture you like on the internet and want to reproduce it as a painting or drawing, unless it is dramatically different and no one can tell which picture you have used, you need the permission of the photographer before you can monetise that artwork.
Using reference images is perfectly normal for creating artwork, you just have to respect where that image has come from and how you are using it. A lot of artists think that if they see a picture on Pinterest, Google Images or Instagram, they have the right to reproduce it. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The safest way to ensure you can use an image for reproduction as the artwork is to obtain it from a copyright-free image website or public domain where the image is public property and not protected by copyright law. There is a multitude of sources to choose from including, Unsplash, Pixabay, Paint my Photo, FreePik, Pexels, and many more.
You do not need to ask the photographer’s permission if you are using the image to produce artwork for private or educational use. The same goes for studying other artists’ work. You are more than welcome to reproduce another artist’s work for educational or private use as long as you do not intend on profiting from it.
10. Is it illegal to sell someone else’s art?
Yes, if you don’t have their permission then selling someone else work will violate their copyright. If you attempt to sell someone else’s artwork as your own, you could be committing forgery or uttering a false instrument. If you aren’t sure where you stand, always obtain explicit written permission from the original creator before using or selling someone else’s artwork.
11. Is fan art illegal or does it infringe on copyright?
It is generally ok to create your own fan art for private recreational purposes, however, you must be careful not to infringe on the copyright or trademarks of the respective owners. Any attempt to publish (for profit or otherwise) or sell your fan art without the express permission of the owner will usually be against the law as it infringes on the copyright and intellectual property of those owners. Some entities are much more tolerant of the fan art community than others, some communities have a strong fan art following which brand owners turn a blind eye to. However, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and keep fan art strictly to yourself.
12. Are crafts copyrighted?
Yes, crafts are copyrighted for their artistic elements like pictorial patterns and specific decorative elements. However, the copyright does not protect the existence of the item itself or the technique used, and other people are free to create their own crafted items.
13. Do I need a patent to protect my crafts and handmade items?
There are two types of patents that might apply to your crafted or handmade items.
- Design patents – which protect the ornamental design of an object.
- Utility patents – which protect the functional qualities of an object or the method of manufacture.
Although patents exist and can be used, they are often expensive to obtain and defend legally, meaning they are not appropriate or economical for most craft and handmade applications. Copyright registration is usually more suitable, as it is cheaper and takes much less time than a patent application.
14. Are decals and stencils copyrighted?
It depends. Different governments have different requirements for registering a sticker, decal, or stencil copyright. Generally speaking, to be registerable the piece must contain significant amounts of original expression and not consist of any common figure, symbol, or uncopyrightable material. It goes without saying that you cannot create decals, stencils, and stickers that infringe on the trademarks or copyrights of other entities without their express permission.
15. Does decoupage infringe on copyrights?
If the artwork you are using in your decoupage is in the public domain, you are able to use it freely with no copyright infringement present. However, if it is copyrighted and/or branded material and you use it for decoupage you may be infringing on copyright and/or trademarks. It was previously accepted that once you’ve bought the material you were covered by the doctrine of exhaustion of rights meaning it was yours to reuse, sell or destroy. However, this has been challenged more recently in the ‘Allposters’ case, and its certainly something you might face opposition to today if you are selling your work commercially. Always get explicit written permission from the current owners of copyrighted materials if you wish to use them commercially.
16. Are famous artworks copyrighted?
In the UK and USA, a work of art is automatically protected by copyright for the duration of the artist’s life plus 70 years in most cases. If the work of art was a commission then copyright continues for 120 years after creation or 95 years after it was first published, whichever is shorter. In some cases an extension has been granted to this term, something led by Disney who wanted to protect their Micky Mouse brand. This means that many well-known paintings are now in the public domain, and can be used. However, photographs taken of famous artworks are copyrighted and belong to the person who took the picture. In 2017 The Met made all images of public domain works in its own collection available under the creative commons license. You can view the collection here. Many similar institutions have done the same, allowing you access and use of many famous works of art.
17. What are public domain images?
A public domain image is an image that is free to use for any reason private or commercial, there is no copyright protection at play. This could be for a number of reasons, perhaps the copyright has expired, it is not eligible for copyright in the first place or it has been dedicated to the public domain used by the owner of the copyright.
18. How else can I protect my artwork online?
The most obvious way to prevent your work from being stolen is not to put it online at all! This isn’t very helpful though because you need to put your artwork online in order to sell it. So, the easiest and quickest way to protect your art from being stolen on the internet is to use a watermark.
Whenever you post your art anywhere on the internet, watermark it. This is a translucent logo or text stating who the artwork belongs to. Put the watermark somewhere in the middle so it cannot be cropped out and have it around 10 -20% opacity so it doesn’t interfere with the final look of your art. If you feel that the physical watermark on your art is unattractive you can always digitally watermark your art using special software. But this is expensive!
With the growth of social media, it has become easier for people to download and screenshot images of artists’ work and sell them as their own. Unfortunately, this happens more than we like but what can we actually do about it, and do you even have the right to? The short answer is YES! If it is your artwork that is being used without your permission in any shape or form, you have the right to any profits produced from that artwork and to recover any damages suffered as a result of their actions. Always report copyright violations to the platforms on which they occur, and inform the infringing party of the violation.
19. What do I do if my artwork gets stolen online?
An easy way to find out if your artwork has been stolen is to do a reverse image search. A reverse image search searches for images similar to yours and will display if any, the images it has found and where they have come from. Go to your web browser and right-click on your image from your website, or anywhere your images are displayed. In Google Chrome select ‘Search Google for this Image’, other web browsers may say something similar. Google Chrome has a copyright infringement form that you can fill out and have your images taken down from websites that do not have your permission, something you will also find on most social media platforms. Brilliant news!
Another way to take action if you find your artwork has been stolen is to contact all the third parties involved. For example, if it is someone on Instagram that has stolen your work then report it on Instagram. If it is on a website, then report it to Google, the company hosting the website, the domain registrar, and anyone else involved in the website.
20. Have can I profit from having a copyright on my art?
If you want to sell the rights to your image for image licensing purposes, a great source of income for artists, then there are many routes you can go down. Definitely a topic for another time!!
Use copyright to protect your artwork!
Check out your own local government’s advice on copyright in your region, they will always be happy to help and have many free resources for people looking to protect their intellectual property. Once you understand which copyright rules apply to the work you’re creating, you can use it to protect your work, which in turn protects your brand and helps you build real assets as an artist.
Please note; this article does not constitute legal advice and it is advised that you seek qualified legal advice on any of the topics featured herein before you proceed.