A complete guide on artwork copyright


Artwork copyright is a legal concept that limits the ways in which a piece of original artwork can be used or copied by others without permission from its creator. Copyright applies to any expressible form of an idea or information that is substantive and discrete, ‘fixed’ (made permanent) in some way, either manually, electronically or in some other manner. As soon as an artist creates a painting, drawing, photograph etc., it is automatically protected by copyright whether the artist puts a © mark on the work or not.

Copyright is automatic (it exists from the moment that your artwork is created), but registration is necessary if you want to take legal action if somebody copies your work. In some countries, registration is necessary before you can sue for infringement of copyright. Different jurisdictions have different requirements and fees involved in the registration process.

Artwork ownership and authorship

You are the owner of the actual artwork but not the copyright. The original artist always owns the copyright unless there is a written agreement to specifically assign or transfer that right to another party (for example a publisher). Only in a few countries does a purchaser of art automatically become its owner, but this depends on various factors such as national laws and sale conditions agreed between parties. In most cases, when purchasing a piece of artwork from an artist, you do not own it until you make payment in full or sign an agreement transferring ownership of the artwork to you. Any reproduction or modification of a piece of art without the creator’s permission is copyright infringement and a civil offense, punishable by law.

Resale royalty right (Droit de Suite)

A close up of a glass

Some jurisdictions provide for resale royalties that become due to an artist whenever one of his/her works is resold at public auction (for example in London, New York and Paris), though not if sold privately or via an art dealer. This royalty becomes due again every time the original work is resold at auction until a period of time exceeding 70 years has passed since first sold; after which no royalties are owed. Resale royalties apply only to certain categories of works such as engravings and other limited edition works, but not to paintings, drawings or pastels.

Copyright limitations and permitted uses

As well as outright copyright infringement being an offense, certain types of use are limited in duration or require the payment of a licensing fee. This applies especially to reproduction on products such as T-shirts, coffee mugs etc., so think ahead. Copyright protection lasts for:

the life of the creator plus 70 years (but some works never enter public domain) and some jurisdictions provide for longer periods than others. No worldwide copyright protection exists for unpublished works created before 1st January 1989; although they remain copyrighted under national laws until at least 2039 (70 years after the death of author that year). The Berne Convention provides for copyright terms at the minimum of the author’s life and for 50 years after his/her death.

Copyright infringement and how to avoid it:

Certain practices may be considered copyright infringement even if the infringing materials are not copied or used in their entirety, such as:

Do not use protected images as a reference (source), for instance by tracing them; unless you have obtained special written permission from the artist who created them, photographs of sculptures cannot be used as reference material either. If you want to reproduce artwork or photos yourself, make sure your copies do not appear too similar to the original; merely changing colors or proportions is often insufficient (and illegal) if an exact copy would be recognizable and attributed to its source. Remember that what one person may do legally, somebody else may not.

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