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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

 

30 Comments

  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?

    Thanks.

    • 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.

  8. Rebecca
    January 10, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    QUESTION
    I wanted to share some art ideas/renderings for a Mural job
    How can I in the proposal word it so my work remains exclusively mine and no one else can use
    Until job is agreed and paid for ?
    Thank you

    • Holland Gormley
      January 14, 2022 at 2:41 pm

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for your question.

      Copyright is a bundle of rights that initially belongs to the author(s) who create a work. Those bundle of rights include the exclusive right to: reproduce the work; distribute the work, publicly display the work; and prepare derivate works based on the original work. The term of copyright begins as soon the work is fixed in a tangible medium/format.

      You may place a copyright notice on your proposal and artwork to inform the reader of your claim to copyright to your work. For more information on placing a notice on your work, see: https://copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf

      While registration for your work is not required to hold rights to your work, there are some legal benefits to registering the work with our office. For more information, see: https://copyright.gov/circs/circ01.pdf

  9. Alair
    February 7, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    If I find a rubber mold lying around and cast a positive and add it to a piece of art, am I infringing on cr? What percentage of an original do I need to change to make it legal?

  10. Lester Stillson
    February 11, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    If I sell my original oil painting, do I retain the copywrite and ability to sell prints?

    • Holland Gormley
      February 14, 2022 at 10:13 am

      Hi Lester,

      Ownership of a copyright, or of any of the exclusive rights under a copyright, is distinct from ownership of any material object in which the work is embodied. Transfer of ownership of any material object does not of itself convey any rights in the copyrighted work embodied in the object.

      Hope this helps!

  11. Juliet M
    February 15, 2022 at 4:42 am

    Is there a transfer of copyright when an original piece is marketed and sold under clearly articulated terms of sale which specify that the artist declares in writing that they will never again create or sell prints from the original work that has been purchased? I’m glad I found your article, thank you for writing it.

    • Holland Gormley
      February 15, 2022 at 3:00 pm

      The ownership of a copyright may be transferred in whole or in part by any means of conveyance or by operation of law, and may be bequeathed by will or pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession. 17 USC 201(d)(1). You would need to seek legal counsel to determine if a document between the parties met the legal requirements for a transfer of copyright ownership.

  12. Kevin
    February 15, 2022 at 8:55 am

    Not sure if my previous question got through?
    I was recently asked by a museum registrar about who owns/retains the copyrights to my grandfather’s artwork, as he passed away in 1973. I have asked the surviving son (my father) and the grandchildren and we don’t think the copyrights were ever transferred. As a family, can we claim the copyrights? Can an single individual claim the copyrights? Thank you for your guidance.

  13. Kevin
    February 15, 2022 at 8:58 am

    Not sure if my previous question got through?

    I was recently asked by a museum registrar about who owns/retains the copyrights to my grandfather’s artwork, as he passed away in 1973. I have asked the surviving son (my father) and the grandchildren, and we don’t think the copyrights were ever transferred. As a family, can we claim the copyrights? Can an single individual claim the copyrights? Thank you for your guidance.

    • Holland Gormley
      February 15, 2022 at 2:59 pm

      Hi Kevin,

      If there has been no written transfer of copyright ownership by the author before his passing, then the copyright can pass as personal property by the applicable laws of intestate succession. you may need to seek legal counsel as to the applicable state laws of intestate succession to determine the current copyright holder(s).

  14. Mary Ellen Vehlow
    March 6, 2022 at 10:04 am

    IMAGE OF ARTWORK AS PART OF VIDEO BACKGROUND
    What permission/release/ contract do I need from an artist if a piece of their artwork (that I own) will appear in the background of a video podcast (for a topic which is not related to the artist).
    Does the video production company also need to obtain permission?
    Does the contract with the production company specifically outline when/how and where the video will be distributed?

    • Holland Gormley
      March 14, 2022 at 1:27 pm

      Hi Mary Ellen,

      Good question! Generally, permission is required to include artwork in a video, unless one of the exceptions in the law (17 USC 107-122) applies to the situation.

  15. Mary Klucznik
    March 16, 2022 at 9:26 am

    Hello — I am working with high school students and we have a couple of questions.

    1.) Does putting the copyright symbol on a piece of work help protect it? For instance I write the lyrics to a song and put the symbol at the bottom the the lyrics with my name and date. I have not registered with the copyright office.

    2.) How do creative commons licences come into play? Do they help at all?

    Thank you.

  16. Anjj
    June 29, 2022 at 8:20 pm

    I am planning on signing up with Shopify for a T-shirt business, but before I do I wanted to know if my T-shirt design should be registered/ trademark started before I sign up with Shopify? I hope I’m asking the correct question?

    • Holland Gormley
      July 1, 2022 at 8:39 am

      Hi Anjj, we’re unable to offer specific legal guidance. In general though, a design may be eligible for copyright registration if it contains a sufficient degree of creativity. You can learn more about the types of works eligible for copyright registration and the benefits of copyright registration here. The US Patent and Trademark Office, which is separate from the Copyright Office registers trademarks. You can learn more about them here.

  17. Rita Kepner
    September 17, 2022 at 12:14 am

    Question. What are pro and con of donations of my personal art to a museum — with or without donating the copy right ?

  18. Destiny Carthins
    November 6, 2022 at 8:29 pm

    I have a question. Let’s say that I copyrighted a piece of art that I just finished and then sell it to someone or at an auction. The new owner will then have ownership over my art. If i took a picture of that specific art that I sold, can I still use it for a clothing brand, prints, etc. since i did have ownership of it first. Thank you!

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