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Junior Fellow’s Personal Experience with Copyright

This is a guest blog post by 2022 Junior Fellow Vela Burke. Ms. Burke, who recently graduated from Queens College with an MLIS, concentrating in children’s and young adult literature and services, contributed to the Copyright Office’s Copyright for All strategic plan initiative, focusing on copyright for kids, during the ten-week-long program.

Image of the author in a floral dress siting at her booth displaying her artwork.

2022 Junior Fellow Vela Burke displays her artwork, which she registered with the Copyright Office.

Hello, Copyright: Creativity at Work readers! My name is Vela Burke, I’m a designer-turned-children’s librarian, with an MLIS in children’s and young adult literature and services and a BFA in graphic design. I love all things at the intersection of art and libraries.

This summer, I was one of two Junior Fellows working on one of the Copyright Office’s efforts to broaden access to the copyright system to the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs. These efforts will provide librarians, educators, parents, and today’s creative kids with much-needed information on copyright, which they do not always receive through traditional channels.

Today, I’m going to share a little about my personal experience with copyright. I was a child who loved to draw. I started my career at the age of four, selling my artwork outside my mother’s store in Barcelona. Thousands of hours spent drawing landed me in art school, where I made the sensible choice of a graphic design major even though my true love was illustration. Stints as a graphic designer and art director left me wanting more.

I took a continuing education class in art licensing in the social expressions industry (associated with greeting cards, notes and stationery, gift wrap, and other socially expressive products), which opened up a whole new world of copyright and licensing to me. I had managed to go through art school without anyone ever mentioning copyright (it was a painting-centric art school). But in that class, I learned that copyright is the type of law that protects creative works, like my artwork, and that as the owner of the copyright, I could allow others to reproduce my work in different mediums and formats. This is one way to license art, which I would describe to be a bit like “renting” your designs to companies to use on their products. My professor, who is also an artist who licenses work, stressed that there was room for everyone in the market and that we should always register our works.

After going through a couple of sessions of my professor’s class, I soon had an art portfolio to show and made the leap to become an entrepreneur, starting my own licensing and design studio. I picked a name for my business, created a limited liability company, and decided to show my designs at Surtex, New York City’s premier show for art licensing.

Before exhibiting, though, I decided to register my art with the Copyright Office. Even though copyright protection vests automatically once a work is fixed in a tangible form, I was now in business for myself and wanted to get the additional benefits of registering my work before exhibiting it. Registering your work is a good idea, especially if you plan on earning income from it, so there is a public record of your ownership and people who want to license it can get in touch with you.

I nervously pulled together my first Copyright Office registration submission, including the application, filing fee, and a copy of the work. Receiving my first certificate of registration made my business feel real, and soon registering was just a part of my studio’s tasks. I learned that the Office offered options to register multiple works with one application and that some of my artwork was eligible for a group registration. Registering my works this way made it affordable.

Image of two tote bags: one of a zebra with a pale purple background and the letter Z in the top left corner; the other with an elephant on a pale yellow background with the letter E in the top left corner.

Sample of Vela’s licensed artwork.

I went on to exhibit at Surtex five times, and my designs appeared on products sold at Target, American Greetings, Hallmark, and many more retailers. One illustration could become a greeting card, gift bag, gift wrap, tissue paper, and paper plate set, and I was negotiating the rights of use for each design. As a licensing artist, you keep ownership of the copyright in the artwork and can allow others the right to use it, for specific products and for a limited amount of time.

As my designs hit store shelves, I quickly saw that licensing and the royalties that followed were the gifts that kept on giving and a valuable income stream for artists. With copyright registration, I felt confident that my work was protected in a way that made it possible to have a successful business.