What Artists Need to Know About Copyright

Avoid Infringement and Protect Your Own Work

Copyright defined
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

As an artist, it's important to know about copyright. You need to ensure that you do not breach copyright laws and know how to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a copyright breach.

These issues are of significant legal importance. Corporations and individuals are regularly in the courts because of copyright infringement 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.

Copyright has become a major issue for visual artists, particularly in a digital world. Remember that it is your responsibility to know your rights and obligations. Only then can you enjoy making and selling your art with a clear conscience and peace of mind.

Common Myths About Artist Copyright

We hear it all the time: 'He should be honored I copied his photo...', 'I changed it a little bit...' or 'it's only one copy...' Don't rely on urban folktales and anecdotes when it comes to copyright. Here are some common myths that can get you into trouble.

"Isn't it fair use?" "Fair Use" is one of the most misunderstood concepts in copyright law. If you change a "small portion" of someone else's work, then it's fair to use it, right?

The theory that it's okay if you change at least 10 percent of a work is an illusion. In reality that "small portion" is for review, criticism, an illustration of a lesson, or a quotation in a scholarly or technical work. Creation of a drawing for its own artistic merits is not mentioned.

The U.S. copyright office mentions parody, which some artworks are. However, 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 learning, that's one thing. As soon as you exhibit that work, its function has changed. An exhibition—including online—is regarded as advertising and you are now in breach of copyright.

"But it's an old work of art, so it must be out of copyright." In most countries, copyright is considered to expire 70 years after its creator has died.

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. It's also noting that the estates of many successful artists and musicians often apply to have copyright extended.

"I found it on the internet. Doesn't that mean it's public?" Absolutely not. Just because something is published online does not mean it's fair game for anyone to use however they please.

The internet is just another medium. You can think of it as an electronic newspaper. The newspaper publisher holds the copyright of its images and the publisher of a website holds the copyright of its content. Even though you find illegally reproduced images on websites, that does not grant you permission to use them too.

"They wouldn't care about my little drawing. They won't catch me, anyway." No matter how large or small you are, you can still be prosecuted for copyright infringement. You are setting yourself up for a hefty fine— possibly in the 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 in small exhibitions or shops, so it can easily be reported. It's simply best not to 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 because that would be theft. Unfair use of another person's photo or artwork is just as much theft as if you stole their wallet.

For professionals, 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 you're copying from a big publisher, sure, they make a significant amount of money. Maybe the artist only gets a small percentage of that, but those small percentages add up.

Keep Your Artwork Legal

There are some easy strategies you can take to avoid copyright infringement while creating your own artwork. Save yourself the hassle and worry from the beginning and everything will be fine.

If you are using reference materials other than your own sketches or photographs, follow these tips:

  • Whenever possible, use only your own source material. This is easier than you think. Spend a weekend with your camera and take your own source photographs. Beautiful lighting is a key feature of professional shots and photographers get up at 5 a.m. to catch the morning light. Try it for yourself.
  • Use out-of-copyright materials. Learn the rules of copyright expiration and only use materials that you're absolutely sure are no longer protected.
  • Use public domain images. Websites such as Wikimedia Commons and Flickr allow people to share photos and others may be able to use them under what is known as Creative Commons (CC). However, not every photo on these sites grants full permission for reproductions and some have restrictions. It's very important that you understand how CC works and that you read the fine print on every individual image or artwork you want to use.
  • Obtain permission to use the image. Write to the publisher, magazine, or website and simply ask permission. The worst they can say is no, but sometimes they'll be okay with it in a particular situation. Others may grant permission for a small fee or under conditions, such as crediting your source.
  • Keep track of your sources. If you copy something for your own study purposes, write the source on the back. This may be useful if you ever need to request permission to use it in an exhibit or would like to rework that piece for sale.
  • Know the laws in your state and country. Every country has their own copyright laws, so it's vital that you understand the laws that apply to you. Here are a few helpful websites: United States, United Kingdom, Australia. It's also important to understand that there is no international copyright law protecting work worldwide.

Protecting Your Own Artwork

As soon as your artwork leaves your hands, you risk other people using it inappropriately. This applies just as much to sharing photos on the internet as it does to sell a physical painting that can then be copied. It's also possible that someone else may profit from your work without you knowing it.

This is a harsh reality for artists, especially when you want to market your work online. While it's never guaranteed, there are some things you can do to protect your art.

Copyright legally belongs to the artist from the moment of creation. You don't need to mail yourself copies: that's another myth and a complete waste of time because it cannot be used as evidence in court.

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. It's a small fee, but if you are concerned about copyright, it may 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 your intentions clear to buyers and that this is done in writing. Consider writing a copyright notice on the back of your artwork and include the © symbol beside your signature.

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

  • Add a copyright symbol and written notice on the webpage.
  • Post images as small and low-resolution as possible.
  • Add a copyright notice watermark across the image.
  • Embed the image file with a copyright notice using metadata.
  • Use a web service to track if and where your images are being posted.
  • Cut larger images into sections and join them in a table.
  • Use scripting in the website code to disable the right-click that makes copying and saving images easy.

None of these steps will stop people from using your images. This is a fact of life for visual artists in the modern era where everything is done online. Every artist must make their own decisions as to how far they want to go in protecting their images and what to do when one is misused. 

DISCLAIMER: The author is neither a lawyer nor a 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.