Art Law. It’s not really a fun topic of conversation for the average artist, but it is important. Nowadays, most artists and creatives have some kind of presence on the Internet, whether it’s through their website, blog, Facebook or other social media channels. Understanding a bit about Copyright Law is a must.

Taking steps to properly protect your artistic rights is more important now than ever. I learned this last year when my art was blatantly copied, I also learned that Copyright Law is very complex. However, this informative article caught my eye, so I wanted to share it with my readers.


You can’t be a successful artist without creative innovation, a proper education, and … an extensive understanding of legal rights? It’s sad but true: Most artists would be helpless victims of theft without the protection of copyright laws. In an age where your art can be copied, uploaded to the web, and made available worldwide in seconds, it’s good to know you have a way to fight back.
So how do you go about copyrighting your work? It’s simple, really. Here are some easy steps to take to protect your artwork!
copyright law books

Register with the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress

Registering your work with the U.S. copyright authorities is a must. Copyright laws, which cover published and unpublished works, ensure other thieves (including other artists) can’t steal your creations without legal repercussions:

  • They protect visual and written works including paintings, essays, photographs, and sculptures, and help establish reproduction limitations.
  • For example:
    • A properly copyrighted work can only be copied by its owner, who can also limit the rights of each work.
    • So you can make a painting and sell it as prints in a web store like Etsy or, but no one else can make prints without your permission. If they do, you can sue them for damages.

According to the Copyright Office, “you don’t have to register a copyright notice for every work you create.”

The most recent copyright law says, “copyright legally belongs to the artist from the moment of creation,” meaning you can challenge a copycat in court if you prove your work is original.

  • But the Office says it’s in every artist’s best interest to register every work because doing so establishes it as prima facie evidence in a court of law.
  • This means the original creator and his work gets the burden of proof in court, where registered art is “sufficient to prove a fact.”
  • Details of this law are found in the copyright basics section here.
  • Also, you can sell the full copyright of your art only if you register it, and you can also demand more money in court.

The registration process itself is quite easy.

Registering your creation is much easier now. You can register online! Follow this link.
Or you need to fill out a copyright registration notice (available to print from an online form), to the Library of Congress at:

  • Library of Congress Copyright Office 101 Independence Avenue, SE. Washington, D.C. 20559 6000
  • The day the Copyright Office receives the package is the day your registration becomes official.
  • If your work is first published in a foreign country, you need to include two copies of the work as a mandatory provision deposit “within three months of publication.”
  • You can also register online through the electronic Copyright Office (eCO). In fact, the Office prefers online registrations because it’s faster to process “big media” files, like songs, large painting files, and movies. The fee is also cheaper and you can track the status of your file online.
  • Once the registrar’s office examines your applications, you’re given an official certificate of registration, which arrives through snail mail within 5 months of submission. Then, evidence of your copyrighted work will be available online and you can link to this public record from any web property, like a Flickr artist page.
Hummingbird & White Orchids ©2010 LMcNee
Hummingbird & White Orchid ©2010 LMcNee

(Above is my painting, “Hummingbird & White Orchids” ©2010 LMcNee)
flying hummingbird and orchids with vase still life(Here is the copy!)

Personal Web Copyrights

But what happens while you wait for the Copyright Office to approve your submissions? You need to market and sell your pics online today! Luckily, you have several options to fill the gap.

  • The one most used is the copyright notice, best known as the C symbol (©), plus the year the work was published, or the abbreviation Copr.
  • This is usually accompanied by a written notice, prominently placed, and clearly explaining the extent of the copyright.
  • The correct copyright display also includes:
    • The name of the owner of the work, “or an abbreviation by which the name can be recognized,”
    • Such as, “copyright © 2010 Prince Michael Jackson.”

Sometimes a © notice is added as a watermark on top of an image by the artist, other times by a publisher’s software.

  • For example, Google’s Picasa program recently added a “created by” watermark option for all downloaded pictures.
  • The symbol is important because it tells the viewer or reader that it’s a work protected by copyright.
  • This helps in court cases when another artist cites his use of copyrighted material as innocent infringement, which means they accidentally used your work not knowing it was copyrighted.
  • It’s especially hard to argue your innocence of theft when a copyright was explicitly displayed.
example image from:

Artists also manage to post artwork online without worry by using secure methods of software management. Painters and designers post images as small files of low resolution, for preview purposes. Others use scripting techniques to prevent right-click image saving, or use programs to track users’ copying habits.
Some artists don’t mind if a selection of their art is used for free if they can sell another work for full price. This is the Freemium economic concept and many online use it, often through Creative Commons licenses that flexibly define segments of their catalog. You can find more about CC licenses here.

Local and International Copyright Laws

It’s worth mentioning in an increasingly international world: The laws of the U.S. aren’t the same in other places.

  • But you should be happy to know the government has properly defined copyright provisions in most of its free-trade agreements.
  • Many treaties, such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the World Intellectual Property Organization Copyright Treaty affect copyright.
  • Most of these try to duplicate U.S. copyrights, but not all do.
  • So you need to check in the Circular 38a (article) notice of the International Copyright Relations of the United States website to double check before selling any art overseas.

It’s also good to note that whenever a nation changes leadership, or changes its constitution, a lot of the previous treaties with the country are still upheld. When the USSR separated into many countries in the 1990s, its successor countries were still under obligation to copyright treaties with other countries.

There’s a Limit to Everything: The Copyright Period

What about the length of a copyright? We’ve all heard of the early Disney cartoons that are going to be available to use for free in the next twenty years because their copyright will run out. Well, it turns out copyrights last longer than you might expect.
Here’s how the time limits for copyrights break down:

  • Created before 1978 (published or unpublished, copyright or not): Protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years, or until the end of 2002, whichever is greater.
  • Created before 1978 and published between 1978 and 2003: Protected for the life of the creator plus 70 years, or until the end of 2047, whichever is greater.
  • Created after January 1, 1978: Protected for the life of the longest living author (for joint artwork) plus 70 years, or 120 years from creation, whichever is greater.

So, don’t let art thieves steal your work, because you have so many options to protect your artwork!

PS. Please check out this website to learn more about your rights and how to send a “Cease and Desist Letter” to the plagiarizer.


Guest author: ArtBistro. This article was originally posted on Thanks to for sharing such valuable information with us.

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If you liked this article you might enjoy these as well:
How I Stopped a “Copycat Artist” on Facebook (<<< the comments at the end of this post are SUPER informative!)
When Are You Ready to Call Yourself a Professional Artist?
10 Important Things Every Aspiring Artist Should Know: Part 1

Also, you should check out this article by Clint Watson, “Don’t Fear the Copycat”.

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