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What I Wish They Taught Me about Copyright in Art School

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Remember, if it’s worth creating, it’s worth protecting! Learn how on our new Engage Your Creativity page.

I have a confession to make. I made it all the way through a BFA in photography without knowing what exactly copyright was or what it meant for me and my work. It’s not that my professors did anything wrong. They were inspiring, wonderful, and talented creators. It’s never too late to learn though. All of us creators need to understand copyright because it so closely affects us, our work, and our careers. So with classes starting back up both in person and remotely this fall, I wanted to take a moment to speak directly to young creators about what copyright is and how it can help YOU as you start your careers. Why? If it’s worth creating, it’s worth protecting.


The Basics

To start, you need to know that copyright is an “automatic right.” Copyright automatically protects your work from the moment it is fixed in a tangible form. In other words, once you create a piece of art, write a story, or write down or record a musical composition, it is protected by copyright. You don’t need to do anything else at all for your work to be protected. Your work just belongs to you after you make it.* As the owner of your work, copyright gives you the right to make and sell copies of it, distribute those copies, make new works from it, and for some types of works, publicly display and publicly perform it (among other things).


Leveling Up

It’s true that once your work is fixed in a tangible form—like a recording, a composition, photograph, etc.—it gains copyright protection. But some creators decide to take their protection one step further by registering their work. Registering your work with the U.S. Copyright Office requires an application, a filing fee, and a copy of the work. The Office then examines the application to make sure your work is eligible for copyright protection (the Office doesn’t look at whether your work may be eligible for other laws like trademark or patent protections, which are covered by a different government agency).

Think of registering for copyright like requesting an official birth certificate for your work, which notes its creator or “parent” (you) and the date it was created. Registering your work gives you an official document, called a certificate of registration, and makes a public record of your ownership. You do need to register if you want to bring a lawsuit for infringement of your U.S. work, and you have to do it within a certain amount of time to pursue statutory damages or attorney’s fees in that lawsuit. This is a fancy way of saying you need to have your registration if, for example, you take someone to court for using your work without your permission and you want to try to have your attorney’s fees covered or pursue other types of compensation.


To Register or Not To Register

You can register your work anytime during the life of copyright, but of course, like we mentioned above, there are benefits of a timely registration. The Office is here to serve you and the public at large as an unbiased entity, to make sure that copyright law is applied fairly to creative works. Which is pretty fun if you ask us! Our general advice is to consider registering your work if you want to show that you own your work or if you plan on earning an income from it. In most cases, you can complete an application online, upload your work, and register for a fee. A member of our team can even help you determine which filing option is right for you. Ready to learn more about how copyright affects your work and maybe even take the next step? Check out our page, Engage Your Creativity, for easy-to-use resources and videos on copyright, follow us on Twitter, and give us a shout with any specific registration questions. And remember, the most challenging part is engaging with your creativity. We’re here to help with the rest.


*With some legal limitations, like you’ve transferred the rights to someone else or you’re making it as part of your employment for someone else (called a work made for hire).



  1. Myron Steven Kent
    September 1, 2020 at 9:57 pm

    I want to learn more about copy right laws as i am currently attendig Art school.

  2. Denise
    September 3, 2020 at 12:46 am

    I submitted my poetry & my registration was rejected I don’t know what I did wrong. Can I have my poetry notarized & have it mailed to me,leaving it sealed in the original envelope?

    • Holland Gormley
      September 4, 2020 at 2:08 pm

      Hi Denise, you can schedule an appointment to go through your application with our help team. Here is a link. It sounds like the mail you’re requesting refers to what is oftentimes called a “poor man’s copyright” which is not recognized by the courts as a substitute for registration, or for filing an application, with the Copyright Office.

  3. cayley
    September 4, 2020 at 11:38 am

    Great info! Thank you for your work!

  4. Registration Really Counts!
    January 4, 2021 at 2:54 pm

    In general, art, photo, film, and journalism instructors & professors do a quality job teaching their respective creative disciplines to their students. However, too many for-profit schools, universities, and community colleges are massively NEGLIGENT in not providing their students with SUBSTANTIVE real-life training in business and IP law — these schools are GREAT at taking our tuition money! No wonder so many creatives struggle after graduation.

    Schools need to offer multiple courses in IP law & business throughout the year and not just during the students’ final semesters where they are rushing to complete their final projects so they can graduate on-time.

    When you survey creatives 10+ years after graduation, they’ll often respond that, among other things, they wish their institutions had provided them with more legal and business training.

  5. A_VS
    January 4, 2021 at 3:25 pm

    Hi Holland; you wrote, “The Office then examines the application [and deposit] to make sure your work is eligible for copyright protection.”

    My understanding is different: The USCO, among having many statutory and regulatory duties, is an office of “recordation & registration.”

    The Office does not, per se, grant copyrights, but rather, reviews claims for “registration purposes,” and if a work of authorship qualifies, the Office will issue a Certificate of Registration, rather than determining if it “is eligible for copyright protection.”

    It’s a federal judge who would determine the copyrightability (and protection) of a creative work.

    Where am I wrong?

    • Holland Gormley
      January 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm

      You’re right that the Office does not grant copyright protection. But the Office will issue a registration certificate only if the Office determines that the work meets the requirements for registration. One of those requirements is that the work must “constitute copyrightable subject matter.” The Office must register a work if it is copyrightable and meets all other legal and formal requirements but the Office must refuse to register a work if it is not copyrightable or fails to meet other legal and formal requirements. Therefore, the Office must make a determination on copyrightability when examining registration claims. The Office’s process is distinct from a court proceeding in an infringement matter. In a court proceeding, the court may review copyrightability, though it will generally give evidentiary weight to the Office’s decision.

  6. Myron Steven Kent
    April 24, 2021 at 11:38 am

    I found this blog and do not know why I was interested to learn copy right’s I can only say I was going to art school and became concerned as I was doing a painting of Tom Brad but since then I lost it in a fire.

  7. Richard_Cindi.U
    July 7, 2021 at 7:13 am

    I thought I understood this copyright article until I read the following sentence: “You do need to register if you want to bring a lawsuit for infringement of your U.S. work.”

    What does this sentence mean (“your US work”)? I live in the US and often travel to Europe over the summer breaks taking pictures of its people and events for my travel blog. Are those photographs copywrighted in the US or only in the EU? If I post my EU travel photos on my blog and someone in the US starts selling them on t-shirts, do I have to copywright them in the US before I can sue them or can I only sue them in the EU?

    My German friend visits the US every spring. If she posts her California tourist photos on her German-language travel blog and someone in California steals one of her photographs, does she have to copywright her photographs in Germany or with the US copyright office to go after them in court?


    • Holland Gormley
      July 13, 2021 at 9:33 am

      Hi there! Great question. For registration purposes, a US work is determined either by where the work is published or by the citizenship, nationality, or domicile of the authors. A work is a US work when it (1) was first published in the United States, either independently or simultaneously in another country; (2) was first published in a foreign nation that is not a treaty party, but all of the authors are nationals, domiciliaries, or habitual residents of the United States; or, (3) is unpublished and all of the authors are nationals, domiciliaries, or habitual residents of the United States. If the work qualifies as a US work, then the copyright owner must register the work prior to filing a lawsuit in the United States.

      We can’t provide legal advice, or direction in specific situations, but a few principles to keep in mind: Copyright law is territorial, tied together by a series of international agreements, most notably the Berne Convention. The vast majority of countries recognize reciprocal rights in fellow treaty countries. You can read more in International Copyright Relations of the United States. Also, enforcement is territorial, and where a copyright owner would file suit would depend on where the infringement occurred.

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