Artwork Copyright Rules

By Kat Milner
Artwork Copyright Rules
Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images

Artists put not only hard work and time into their creations, but heart and soul as well. When that work is used without permission or payment, it hurts—and it’s illegal. Copyright gives the creator of an original work of art the exclusive right to make copies of it, to create derivative works that are substantially based upon it and to sell or distribute copies, to display the work publicly—and to grant others the right to do these things.

What Is Protected

The visual arts that are protected by copyright law include pictorial, graphic and sculptural works of fine, graphic and applied art. That includes photographs, original prints, art reproductions, maps, technical and mechanical drawings and architectural drawings and plans. Here’s a short list of protected works that you might not expect:

• Artificial flowers and plants • Collages • Dolls and toys • Enamel works • Fabric, floor and wallpaper designs • Games, puzzles • Holograms, computer and laser artwork • Jewelry designs • Models • Mosaics • Needlework and craft kits, tapestries, weaving and lace designs • Patterns for sewing, knitting, crochet, needlework • Stained-glass designs

What Is Not Protected

Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, concept, method, process, device, name, title or slogan.

Protection Is Automatic

Original artwork is automatically protected by copyright when it is created and “fixed” for the first time in a tangible medium. Neither registration in the Copyright Office nor publication is required. But registration does establish a public record of copyright, should you need it. Usually, a work must be registered before you can sue for infringement.

Copyright Laws Are International

The Berne Convention and the World Intellectual Property Organization adopted copyright treaties defining international copyright protection and granting broad international rights to the citizens of participating countries. These include most of Western Europe, Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Japan and Australia.

Copyright Notice Is Not Required

Under current law, copyright notice (the word "copyright" or the symbol © followed by name and date) is not required. Any work first published before March 1, 1989, when the U.S. acceded to the Berne Convention, should have carried a notice.

Visual Artists Have Moral Rights

For some one-of-a-kind works of art and numbered editions of 200 or fewer copies, artists have rights of attribution and integrity. The right of attribution means that artists are identified with their own creations and not with works created by others. The right of integrity protects creative works against alterations that may damage the artist’s honor or reputation. These rights may not be transferred, but the artist may waive them. Neither selling the artwork nor transferring the copyright affects the moral rights of the artist.

Publication Doesn’t Necessarily Mean “Public”

A work of art is published when multiple copies are distributed to the public or offered to a group for distribution or public display. That doesn’t mean that displaying a work in public is the same as publishing it. A one-of-a-kind work of art, such as a painting or statue, may be sold or offered for sale through an art dealer or auction house, and a statue may be displayed in a public place, without being “published.”

Deposit Is Mandatory for Works Published in the U.S.

Current law requires the owner of copyright or of the exclusive right of publication to deposit two complete copies of the work in the Copyright Office within three months of publication, for the use of the Library of Congress. Foreign publishers that distribute their work in the U.S. must deposit one copy. Deposit is mandatory, even if you don’t intend to formally register your copyright.

How Long Does Copyright Protection Last?

Copyrights to artwork created after 1977 belong to the original creator for life plus 70 years. Rights to original work created “for hire” (under contract or by employees for their employer) lasts for 95 years from original publication or 120 years from date of creation (whichever comes first). Registration is effective on the date the Copyright Office receives the completed application, including the nonrefundable filing fee and copies of the work being registered. Online registration through the electronic Copyright Office (eCO) is the least expensive method, offers faster processing and lets you track your status. Paper forms are still available, but not online; they will be mailed to you upon request. To access eCO, go to the Copyright Office website at and click on “Electronic Copyright Office.”

About the Author

Kat Milner has 35 years' experience in publishing and design, both for print and for Internet. Her background includes business, technical, and educational writing and editing; book editing (fiction and nonfiction); news editing; feature writing (celebrity interviews, music reviews); and publication design. She attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.