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Copyright: For Artists

What Does Copyright Cover?

  • Literary works
  • Musical works, including any accompanying words
  • Dramatic works, including any accompanying music
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works
  • Pictorial, graphic and sculptural works
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Sound recordings
  • Architectural works

Rights as an Artist

As a creator, you have the exclusive right to display and reproduce the original work, as well as make derivative works. This means that no one can copy your work or display it without your permission. You, as the creator, hold the copyright unless the rights have been transferred to someone else, either through a contract, through application of a Creative Commons license or some other method. You do not need to include the copyright symbol - © - in order to receive protection, nor do you need to include a notice of copyright.

When selling a work, the copyright is not automatically transferred to the buyer; a transfer of the rights is typically achieved through a contract or license.

Fair Use in the Visual Arts

Per the third section of the College Art Association's "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use in the Visual Arts,"

  • "Artists should avoid uses of existing copyrighted material that do not generate new artistic meaning, being aware that a change of medium, without more, may not meet this standard.
  • The use of a preexisting work, whether in part or in whole, should be justified by the artistic objective, and artists who deliberately repurpose copyrighted works should be prepared to explain their rationales both for doing so and for the extent of their uses.
  • Artists should avoid suggesting that incorporated elements are original to them, unless that suggestion is integral to the meaning of the new work.
  • When copying another’s work, an artist should cite the source, whether in the new work or elsewhere (by means such as labeling or embedding), unless there is an articulable aesthetic basis for not doing so."

What Doesn't Copyright Cover?

  • Facts
  • Words, phrases or familiar symbols or designs
  • Titles and slogans
  • Works created by the United States Government
  • Works not fixed in a tangible form of expression
  • Ideas, concepts, principles or discoveries
  • Mere variations on typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring
  • "Useful Articles"
    • Fashion
    • Furniture
    • Automobiles
    • Products
    • Lighting

"Useful Articles" are defined as "having an intrinsic utilitarian function." For these types of works, the underlying idea and design are not copyrightable, but particularly creative additions to the underlying concept have the potential to be eligible for copyright. Furthermore, just because something is not covered by copyright does not mean that you cannot protect it; several items in the above list are potentially eligible for either trademark or patent protection. Unlike copyright, however, neither trademarks nor patents are automatically granted to a work upon fixation; both trademarks and patents must be applied for - and approved by - the United States Copyright Office.

For more information on patents and trademarks, see the University of South Florida guide on the subjects. For more information on what is and is not protected by copyright and how to register works, see Chapter 900 of the Compendium (Visual Art Works) and Circular 40: Copyright Registration for Pictorial, Graphic, and Sculptural Works.

Selected Resources

Art Copyright, Explained
This guide from Artsy provides a brief overview of who owns the rights to a specific piece of artwork and some famous cases that went to court over artists borrowing work from others without permission.

artrepreneur: art law journal
This site features in-depth but eminently readable articles on all things related to art and intellectual property rights.

Written by the US government, these publications from provide accessible explanations of copyright and all things related to it.

College for Creative Studies website