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).