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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).


Comments (46)

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

    • You’ve come to the right place, Myron! Our Engage Your Creativity page is designed with creators like you in mind. Be sure to check out our YouTube channel as well!

  2. 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?

    • 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. Great info! Thank you for your work!

    • Thanks Cayley!

  4. 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. 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?

    • 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. 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. 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?


    • 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.

    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

    • 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:

      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:

  9. 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?

    • Thanks Alair! Generally, when a work is subject to copyright protection, one needs to obtain permission from the owner of rights directly before preparing a derivative from an original work. Please read the follow link on derivative works: Circular 14: Copyright in Derivative Works and Compilations

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

    • 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. 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.

    • 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. 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. 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.

    • 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).

    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?

    • 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. 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. 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?

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

  18. 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!

  19. Let’s say I am making a comic book series and making characters, do you have to buy copyrights for all the characters and stories seperately or is all my work covered?

  20. I am publishing a book of poems. Each poem refers to the emotion I felt in front of a specific art piece from a famous artist (Chagall, van Gogh, etc). I need to show each painting somehow as a reference. Would it be a copy right infringement?

    • If the artwork is in the public domain, it can be freely used. If it is still under copyright protection, permission is generally required to use protected works. More here:

  21. As we know, paint is broadly referred to as a ornamental object or type of inventive thing. Though there are numerous functions of paint, in phrases of art, the sort of paints will blow your mind. Every unmarried class of paint carries extraordinary sorts of identity.

  22. Hi. What is someone steals my art and claims it is theirs and tries to sue me? Is this a thing and what if I am not registered with the copyright office but I have my originals? Thanks!

    • Copyright exists automatically in an original work of authorship once it is fixed in a tangible medium, but a copyright owner can take steps to enhance the protections of copyright, the most important of which is registering the work. Although registering a work is not mandatory, for U.S. works, registration (or refusal) is necessary to enforce the exclusive rights of copyright through litigation. For more information on the benefits of registration see: Circular 1.

  23. why the differentiation between published and non-published registration. If not interested in copyrighting the “product” but just the original design, can’t the work still be registered as original (mainly for ownership and passing on to heirs)?

    • US works that are published or unpublished are equally protected under US Copyright Law. However, there are some provisions reserved for published works. For example, certain published works are subject to mandatory deposit in the Library of Congress (see; While unpublished works are eligible for registration without regard to the nationality or where the author lives, there are eligibility requirements for published works (see:; and, finally, there are limitations in the law regarding the exclusive rights of copyright holders, and certain limitations on the rights of a copyright owner are applicable only to published works.

  24. I wrote a novel in Iraq and completed and copyrighted it in 2006. In 2016 I formed an LLC with a friend and we never discussed intellectual property in our contract. He owns 48%, as I do, and our spouses each hold 2%. He re-copyrighted the book under the LLC, put it on Amazon and controls the Amazon account. I formed an LLC alone and am finishing my second novel, I want to advertise both together on my own site. Do I have the right to do so?

  25. Hello!

    I am curious to know if I can copyright my sketches before applying for a high level creative job? There are opportunities coming up to network and present a vision but I am weary. While I know sketches are one’s thesis, I want to protect myself and my ideas. Any advice on how to navigate this would be appreciated.

    Thank you in advance!

  26. Thank you for your post. I have an idea for a public sculptural/conceptual art project, and would like to protect it while pursuing funding and fabricating it. Can I copyright it based on drawings and a description of the idea? Or better to look into a patent and/or trademark (to protect the title/concept)?

    • Thank you for your question. Please contact the contact the Public Information Office for assistance by email at [email protected] or by phone at (877) 476–0778.

  27. There are works that I created on YouTube that I should be protected from anyone recreating these works. Even if I no longer have original copies of the channel. The charters, story and lore for each should be under that protected work. Yet I can’t seem to find help in legal to assist me in my case.

  28. Ladies and Gentlemen: I’m a writer and composer, books, songs and poetry – in SPANISH. Unfortunately, I left my writing career for a few years, so now, I’ coming back and want to continue my writing career. For starters, in the past I copyright a few songs and poems. Unfortunately, after several moves within the US, in various states (mainly Arizona, Texas, Virginia) I lost my personal records and lost track of the material that was copy righted. Please let me know if you can help me to recover some of those records. Some of the poems and songs were copy righted as far back as to the 80’s and 90’s.
    So, my first question is, can you PLEASE check if my name is attached to any work in the Copyright Office?
    The second question is, do you need additional information from me to do an “investigation”?
    I thank you in advance for your time and help. Attentively, Miguel B. Granados, 4025 Ridgmar Lane, Abilene, Texas 79606. 682-777-1164.

    • Miguel, please contact the Public Information Office at (202) 707–3000 or 1 (877) 476–0778 (toll free) or at They can assist you with your questions.

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