Legally Protecting Original Artwork

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An inventor knows to patent an idea in order to protect their invention from theft. Similarly, an artist knows that time and effort put into a piece of art isn’t the only thing that makes it unique. Luckily, the government knows this too; that’s why there are legal protections to using someone else’s art without permission. Here’s how and why to legally protect original artwork.

art work copyright

Copyright Law


You may have heard of copyright law already, but might be hazy on the details. However, the process is actually very straightforward.


Technically, every piece of original creative work is legally protected according to the federal government as soon as it “created and fixed in a tangible form that it is perceptible either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.” But that’s not the end of the story. Certain work done as part of an employment or volunteer position may not actually belong to you, the artist, but to the firm, you work for at the time. It’s important to review company policy on this when performing creative work.


The U.S. also presides over the official copyright registration system. This is a way of officially and legally turning that copyright protection mentioned above into something documented and accountable. There are small fees associated with registering copyright (in the bounds of $55) officially. So if the original artwork is protected inherently, without registration, why register?

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Why You Should Register a Copyright


Officially registering copyright and paying the small fee has many significant benefits. Since the main drawback is financial, here’s an incentive that makes up for it: money.


In cases of infringement where you’re proved to be in the right, you can be awarded any profits that someone else has made off your work. This means that if a large company steals your design and puts it on a mug, but you catch them in the act early, you might not even get compensated at all for the intent of stealing your work. If they’ve sold 25 mugs at four dollars each, you might get $100 minus fees.


If your artwork was copyrighted officially beforehand, however, you can claim up to $150,000 as a punitive measure for willful infringement. Worth the $55 fee yet? Additionally, you can be reimbursed for litigation fees that will undoubtedly arise when trying to sue someone for infringement.


J.D. Houvener, a San Francisco patent attorney, points out another key upside to copyright registration:


“If you’re an artist whose work got improperly used or stolen, and you want to make a claim in front of the federal system, you have to register your copyright to do so anyway! That means the intrinsic copyright that creative work gets is there to dissuade others from infringement but to actually stop them you’ll need to get registered. All the aforementioned benefits only come from having a copyright registered before the infringement occurs, so it just comes down to timing saving you a lot of money and hassle.”

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In Summary


Many artists want to focus on their art without concerning themselves with a bunch of legalities. Much like an inventor who sees patent cost as something of a nuisance, an artist sees copyright cost in a similar fashion. An artist should take into consideration that their artwork could become commercially viable and reusable. 


Copyright registration lets you stop others from using or reusing your personal creative work, and offers large financial and legal incentives. Plus, it’s a great way to show that you did indeed create the work first.