Copyright for Artists

Woman carrying oil painting with businessman in office building
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You need to know about copyright, to ensure that you do not breach copyright laws, and to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a copyright breach. These issues are of significant legal importance, as corporations and individuals are regularly in the courts for breaches of copyright, and hefty fines can be imposed. You also have the moral imperative to respect the rights of other artists, and to have your rights treated with the same consideration.

Page 2: Common Copyright Myths
'he should be honoured I copied his photo...', 'I changed it a bit...' or 'it's only one copy...' or 'isn't it fair use?' ...don't rely on urban folk tales and half-remembered anecdotes. Here are some common ones that can get you into trouble.

Page 3: Keep Your Artwork Legal
Here are some easy strategies to avoid copyright infringement in your own artwork. Save yourself the hassle and worry in the first place.

Page 4: Protecting Your Work
As soon as your artwork leaves your hands, or if you display work via the internet, you risk others using your images inappropriately, and possibly even making profit from them that is rightfully yours. Find out how to protect your drawings.

Copyright has become a major issue for visual artists; remember that it is your responsibility to know your rights and obligations; then you can enjoy making and selling your art with a clear conscience and peace of mind.

DISCLAIMER:I am not a lawyer or copyright expert. This article is for general information only and is not intended to be any form of legal advice. To answer specific legal questions, consult your legal professional.

Isn't it Fair Use?
'Fair Use' is one of the most misunderstood concepts in copyright law, probably because of the reference to reproducing a 'small portion' - often quoted as 'ten percent'. However that small portion referred to is for review, criticism, illustration of a lesson, or quotation in a scholarly or technical work. Creation of an drawing for its own artistic merits doesn't get a mention.

The US copyright office mentions parody, which some artworks are, but this is a specific instance - and you might have to prove it in court. If you copy part of an artwork for the purpose of a learning, that's one thing, but as soon as you exhibit that work, its function has changed - exhibition is regarded as advertising - and you are now in breach of copyright.

But it's an old work of art. It must be out of copyright.
Copyright in most countries is considered to have expired 70 years after its creator has died. So while you might think of an early Picasso as old, the artist only died in 1973, so you'll have to wait till 2043 to use it. Its also worth being aware that the estates of some successful artists and musicians often apply to have copyright extended.

I found it on the internet. Doesn't that mean it's public? No. No no and no. The internet is just another medium, like an electronic newspaper.

The newspaper publisher holds the copyright of its images, the publisher of the website holds copyright of theirs. You'll often find illegally reproduced images on websites - that doesn't mean you can use them too.

I changed it ten percent. Does that make it okay?
No. Sorry. That's another myth that originated from the 'fair use' guidelines, but as we've already established, most drawing doesn't come under 'fair use', and copying, even if you change it, breaches copyright.

End of story.

They wouldn't care about my little drawing. They wouldn't catch me, anyway.
'Small fry' do get prosecuted. You could be up for a hefty fine - and we're talking thousands of dollars - and the destruction of your work. You might not intend to exhibit the work now, but what if you change your mind later? What if someone loves it and wants to buy it? Anyone can see your work on the internet, and small exhibitions or shops can easily get reported. Don't risk it.

They must be making millions. What does one little drawing matter?
You wouldn't take an object from someone's home, however rich they were: that would be theft. Unfair use of someone else's photo or artwork is just as much theft as if you stole their wallet. For professionals - most people whose work you find published in books and magazines - their art is their livelihood. They have invested hours in study and experience, and dollars in materials and equipment. The money from sales pays the bills and sends their kids to college. When other people sell images copied from their work, it means one less sale for the artist. If its a big publisher, maybe the artist only gets a small percentage, but those small percentages all add up.

DISCLAIMER:I am not a lawyer or copyright expert. This article is for general information only and is not intended to be any form of legal advice. To answer specific legal questions, consult your legal professional.

If you are using reference materials other than your own sketches or photographs, there are several steps you can take to avoid breaching copyright:

  • Where possible, use only your own source material. This is easier than you think. Spend a weekend with your camera. Get out there and take your own source photographs. Beautiful lighting is a key feature of professional shots - they get up at 5am to catch the morning light. Try it.
  • Use out-of-copyright materials. Check this guide to copyright expiration.
  • Use Public Domain images. Be aware that some collecctions aren't all public domain - check the rules for whichever photo you wish to use - Finding Free Stock Photos
  • Obtain permission to use image. Write to the publisher/magazine/website. Often permission will be granted for a small fee or/and under certain conditions. More on obtaining permission.
  • if you copy something for your own study purposes, write the source on the back in case you ever need to request permission for use.
  • Know the laws in your state/country. Helpful sites:USA, UK, Australia, International

    DISCLAIMER:I am not a lawyer or copyright expert. This article is for general information only and is not intended to be any form of legal advice. To answer specific legal questions, consult your legal professional.

Copyright legally belongs to the artist from the moment of creation. You don't need to mail yourself copies - that's another urban myth and a complete waste of time (you can't use it as evidence in a court case).

Should someone infringe your copyright, you cannot sue (in the United States; check local laws for other countries) unless you have registered with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.

Its a small fee, so if you are concerned about copyright, it may well be worth it.

You may choose to sell copyright along with your artwork, to sell it with limitations, or retain it entirely. It is important that you make clear your intentions to buyers, in writing. Consider writing a copyright notice on the back of your drawing and include the small circled 'c' symbol beside your signature.

When publishing images on the internet, there are several methods to prevent misuse of your work. Some of these are:

  • In the first instance, add a copyright symbol and written notice on the page.
  • Post images as small and low-res as possible;
  • Add a copyright notice watermark across the image;
  • 'Cut' larger images into sections and join them in a table;
  • Use scripting to disable copying and saving;
  • Become informed - follow the copyright links on these pages for further information.

    DISCLAIMER:I am not a lawyer or copyright expert. This article is for general information only and is not intended to be any form of legal advice. To answer specific legal questions, consult your legal professional.