Copyright - An Artist’s rights short and simple

Everyone needs to understand the rules of copyright. Here is a very brief outline of the law and how it works to protect us from others and others from us...

When it comes to creating artworks, copyright is one area of the law we should all understand. Copyright is a very broad law and covers many creative processes. It exists to protect creatives from losing ownership and the potential earning power of their work by preventing other people copying and possibly profiting from that work.

You own the copyright on every artwork that you produce, provided that it is an original piece devised solely by you. If you sell your work, you still retain the copyright in it unless you have specifically agreed to give copyright away. So, if you sell a painting, the new owner has every right to destroy it, but they have no right to copy it and sell reproductions without your permission. This is an unlikely scenario I admit, but problems can arise with commissioned work, even freebies for charity. In these cases you can protect yourself with a brief contract stating that you own copyright of the work and that the client must agree terms with you if they want to reproduce that work. The exception to this rule is where your image is reproduced as promotion to benefit you, say on an exhibition catalogue or poster.

Always check the small print if you are entering a competition or sharing artwork, particularly photographs, with the media. Their contracts often demand you sign away your copyright and by entering or submitting your work you have agreed to this.

Do remember that copyright cuts both ways and you should never trespass on another’s copyright. Most gallery and commission contracts will ask you to assert that the work is original and this should always be the case. Artists constantly use a wide range of visual resources to develop their ideas, but development is where it must stop. To copy an image, photographic or otherwise, is an infringement of copyright unless it is clearly stated the image is copyright free. Altering part of the image, the colours or the medium is not enough and, while nobody is going to question you copying for practice, you may find yourself in trouble if you exhibit that artwork. Besides, I think an artist’s own voice, however raw, always triumphs over a second hand creation, however slick.