How Artists Protect Their Work

By Bill Kray

Artists have a copyRight to sell their work online.

What's ideal for the artist, are multiple non-exclusive art representatives (reps) contributing to a revenue stream by selling usage rights or prints. However, reps prefer exclusivity. This way they don't have to compete with other reps selling the same work. It also means if they see any display of the work in which hey were not in involved, they can assume they are due commission.


Who ultimately decides exclusivity, though? Did you know that, according U.S. copyright laws, an artist has the right to sell a physical piece of art to one entity and then sell reproductions to others? It's also possible to sell only facsimiles and retain the original. The original creator is granted all rights to every manner of reproduction at the moment of conception and the only way they are lost is if they are transferred in writing. (Caveat: An employer, like an advertising agency or art studio, is considered the "creator" and copyright owner by virtue of a "work for hire" clause.) So, it's the artist, not the rep that determines how many rights are signed away.

Is a Copyright Notice Necessary?

The information here is freely available on the Internet. Though it represents the basics of what every artist should know, it is not meant to be legal advice. For counsel in specific cases, seek an attorney that specializes in intellectual property law.

Prior copyright laws required placing notice with the year and author's name(s) on each publication. Since March 1, 1989 this has been downgraded to a formality. Perhaps people are being given more credit than what's appropriate. If the viewer did not create the work himself, it is assumed that another copyright holder did. Nevertheless, it is still advisable to post notice and be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Do Nothing or File?

Since an artist receives automatic copyright ownership at the moment of creation, what's the advantage of filing a formal VA (visual artist) copyright form? Legally, an artist can petition an offender to cease and desist violating a copyright. However, to seek statutory damages in a court of law, an artist must have filed a prior copyright form. There is a three-month window of time from a work being published to filing that must be met in order to receive this additional right to statutory damages. Here are additional benefits.

  • Informs the public (and potential infringers) that the work is protected by copyright
  • Prevents a party from claiming the status of "innocent infringer", which may allow a party to escape certain damages under the Copyright Act
  • Identifies the copyright owner and the year of first publication (so that third parties will know who to contact to request a license to the work)

For a prolific artist, filing multiple forms can be add up quickly (currently $35 each for basic claim online or $65 by mail). However, there is a provision for a group of unpublished works of art. Categorize as many as can fit on a printed page, multipage PDF, or CD and pay one fee (currently $115 online) to register the collection. Visit for current fees. After preregistration, when the individual works are published, they may inherit full copyright protection.

In today's digital world, many artists publish their works on various sites to gain immediate exposure. Optimum masterpiece protection is achieved when the first stop is the copyright office, not publishing on Flickr or other online services.

Bill Kray

Los Angeles, United States

Vegetarian health advocate, graphic designer, illustrator, programmer and prolific blog writer.

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