What are the Basic Art Copyright Laws?

Anna B. Smith

Basic art copyright laws protect a work of art from being copied, distributed, or performed without the creator's permission. Many countries offer copyright protection to citizens. Any art may be considered protected under these national copyright laws at the moment it is complete or in a finished state. Whether the art has been registered with legal copyright offices or not, it is the property of the individual who created it and only that person may make decisions concerning it, until they sign those rights over to another owner.

In the United States, the 1976 Copyright Act provides that a picture is protected by copyright from the moment it is created in a fixed medium, such as a print, slide, or computer file.
In the United States, the 1976 Copyright Act provides that a picture is protected by copyright from the moment it is created in a fixed medium, such as a print, slide, or computer file.

One of the most important aspects of art copyright laws relates to copies made of artwork. Any reproductions or copies of a work of art that are created without the written consent of the original artist violates his or her copyright protection. Certain types of art, such as paintings and photos, may be easily copied and sold. These types of works are often recreated multiple times and sold in retail stores. This is legal when the original author of the art has authorized the reproductions or created them personally.

Artwork may also be considered to have been copied if a photograph of it is published. Common sources of photographed artwork are Internet art sites and educational textbooks. These sources must first seek permission from the artist to display these photos before making them available to the general public. Artists may wish to require the copyright symbol to be displayed alongside these photos, as well as the year the piece was considered finished to further ensure the work is protected.

An individual who buys a work of art does not necessarily own the copyright on that art. That ownership still resides with the original artist, until he or she relinquishes it in writing. Therefore, a piece of art may be physically sold many times while its copyright remains in the hands of the artist.

Art copyright laws also prevent art from being merchandised without the permission of the individual who owns the original copyright. Certain types of art are appropriate for merchandising materials, such as cartoon characters on television and in movies. The individual or company who created those characters has the right to choose how they are used. For example, the Walt Disney Company owns the copyright on any cartoon characters it has created, many of which appear on children's products, like lunchboxes and clothing. The company must approve the placement of its characters on these items prior to production, so that an independent manufacturer does not violate The Walt Disney Company's copyright protections.

All forms of art are protected by art copyright laws, including visual art — like dramatic plays — and auricular art, such as pieces of music. Individuals wishing to display and perform these works must similarly seek permission from the original author or individual who holds the copyright. Authors frequently charge money to theater troupes for the privilege of performing their works for a limited time. Composers may take similar actions when allowing musicians to perform their works, whether live or through a recording.

Any artist may register his or her work with the local copyright offices of the national government. Some governments charge a fee to keep a copyright record on file for a certain period of time. Individuals wishing to learn more about their local art copyright laws should contact their national government http://www.wisegeek.com/back/article.htm?id=130402for specific information.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - All too often I've seen people claim that because a picture has been put online the artist has given up all rights to it, which is nonsense.

This is why, if you have a blog, you have to be careful to give people proper attribution, or refrain from using their work altogether if they haven't licensed it for that.


@irontoenail - I don't think museums ever get to own the original copyright, or at least, not very often. My understanding was that galleries and museums are only buying the object and not the intellectual property rights to a work, which remain with the artist. It's the same as when an author sells their work. They are only selling the right for someone to have one copy of the work, not for someone to start making their own copies to sell.

This is something that people over the internet always seem to have a hard time understanding, either deliberately or otherwise, but without this protection there would be very little compensation for artists, and they get little enough as it is.


Art copyright laws become murky when people start asserting that they own the photograph of a work that has legally been put into public domain. On the one hand, I can definitely see why museums would want to be able to do this. They spend millions on works of art but then have no right exclusive rights to distribute copies of it. I've heard that some of them will resort to never allowing any photos to be taken of a work except for ones that they control.

But the whole point of image copyright laws is to eventually release art into the public domain and the argument goes that a photograph without any artistic effort added to it shouldn't be allowed to be copyrighted.

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