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Image Copyright For Artists

By in How To


Copyright is legal protection for the author of creative/original works, essentially this gives the author exclusive rights to reproduce, sell and broadcast the work. The laws are country specific, but many countries are signatory to The Berne Convention which gives reciprocal protection to other countries copyright works. This protection is normally automatic, no action or bureaucratic process is required by the author in order to ‘copyright’ the work.

What Is Copyright Protection?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by law for authors of creative/orginal works. This can essentially cover any product of an individual/organisations skills, labour or judgement provided that it is both original and fixed in a material form. These laws and definitions may vary from country to country and this article is mainly concerned with UK/US laws in the context of visual artwork and images.

What Is Protected

As mentioned above, essentially any original work that has been fixed in material form is protected. Here are some examples in the context of visual arts:

  • Graphic works (painting, drawing, diagram, map, chart, plan, engraving, etching, lithograph, woodcut)
  • Photographs (not part of a moving film)
  • Sculpture
  • Collage
  • Works of architecture (buildings and models for buildings)
  • Artistic craftsmanship (e.g. jewelry).

Apart from visual arts, various other classes of work are protected e.g. musical works, literary work, computer generated works and databases.

What Does Copyright Protect Against

Copyright gives the author exclusive rights to the following:

  • To reproduce copies of the work.
  • To prepare derivative works based upon the work.
  • To distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • To display the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • To perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission.

In other words, no other party can do any of the above without explicit permission from the author.

Some Examples

  • An artist can license a publisher to manufacture and sell prints of one/some of the artists works.
  • A photographer can license (sell) a photograph to a magazine to publish for one issue.
  • A photographer can sell ownership of an image to a magazine/library whereby the magazine/library becomes the new copyright owner and therefore all rights are transferred.
  • A photographer can sue a magazine for publishing an image without permission
  • The work can be sold separately to the copyright – an artist can sell an original painting, but this does not mean the artist has sold copyright of the work, therefore the new owner of the painting cannot make reproductions etc. without permission of the artist (the copyright owner).


How Long Does Copyright Last

Owners have exclusive rights to make copies, create derivative works, distribute, display and perform works publicly.

Country/Date created Copyright protection lasts for UK From 1/8/1989 Authors/creators life plus 70 years after death. UK Before 1/8/1989 refer to previous legislation US From 1/1/1978 Authors/creators life plus 70 years after death. US Before 1/1/1978 refer to previous legislation


Fair Use/ Fair Dealing

Fair use/Fair dealing applies for the purposes of research or private study, criticism or review, or for the purpose of reporting current events. For example, quoting a passage from a book as part of a review

However the in the case of an infringement case, the onus is on the alleged infringer of copyright to show that the material in question was being used under the terms of fair use.

Software Backups

In the digital context certain terms describe fair use relating to software back ups, though this is outside the scope of this article.

How Do I Copyright My Work

You do not need to ‘copyright’ your work, if it falls under the definitions above then your work is automatically protected by copyright law.

Copyright Notice

Copyright notice is not required, though it is useful because it informs the public that the work is protected by copyright, identifies the copyright owner, and shows the year of first publication. In addition, if a proper notice of copyright appears on the published copy or copies then in an infringement suit, no weight shall be given to a defense based on ‘innocent infringement’.

For the purpose of digital images within presented on a web page on the internet, a clearly identifiable copyright message, stating © or Copyright or Copr, the author’s name and date of first publication.

Copyright Registration

Registration is not required in the UK or US, moreover there is no national register for copyright works in the UK. In the US there exists a national register and there are certain benefits to registration such as statutory damages and attorneys’ fees. Additionally registration is required if filing an infringement suit.

UK Copyright Registration

Because there is no bureaucratic process to prove that you are the copyright owner it can sometimes be difficult to prove ownership. However, there are ways of proving that your work existed at a particular point in time, which could be used as evidence in the case of copyright disputes.

  • Deposit a copy of the work with a bank or solicitor.
  • Post a copy of the work to yourself (registered post) – leaving the envelope unopened on its arrival.

In the UK certain interest groups have been formed to look after common interests, negotiate licences, and collect fees. The Copyright Licensing Agency is one such interest group that has been set up to look after the interest of authors and publishers. It licences a number of bodies such as: schools, colleges, universities, government departments etc. Licences are given to photocopy extracts from periodical, journals and books. The CLA can be contacted at:

90 Tottenham Court Road, London, W1P OLP. Tel: 1071 436 5931 Fax: 0171 436 3986 Email: URL:

International And Internet Copyright

Each country has it’s own copyright laws, there is no ‘international copyright law’. However, The Berne Convention provides a reciprocal agreement and a basic minimum of copyright laws for all the signatories’ territories. Also within the European Union a number of EU Directives have harmonised aspects of copyright law between the member states.

In the case of infringement, the jurisdiction of the country where the infringement is alleged to have occured applies. This is particularly relavent for the images published on the internet, however as a result of The Berne Convention, author’s work is automatically protected within all territories signatory to this agreement. So for instance someone in the USA downloading an image without permission that is hosted on a website in the UK is still infringing the author’s copyright.

Generally, it is not so much important where the material was created as where the alleged infringement took place.


Further Reading

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Just wanted to say what a fantastic support/info system you run. I've just read the newsletter regarding image copyright law and it's very informative... thanks!"

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