Legal information for visual artists

“Copyright is about important rights that only you have in your work.”

What are your rights as a visual artist?
If you are a visual artist, this chapter will help you learn about important legal issues that affect you and your work. Most legal issues that visual artists come across are about copyright and moral rights. Whether you make art just for pleasure or you want to make money from your work, this information will help you protect your rights.

The information in this chapter applies to a whole range of art forms, including:

  • drawing
  • painting
  • engraving
  • printmaking
  • photography
  • digital art
  • sculpture
  • installations
  • cartoons and graphic art
  • craftwork

Copyright for visual artists
Copyright is about important rights that only you have in your work.

As a visual artist, you have the right to:

  • reproduce or copy your work
  • publish your work in a book, magazine or newspaper
  • communicate your work, for example, put your artwork on the internet.

Other people will need your permission or a licence if they wish to do these things.

Copyright is important because it:

  • protects your work against use by others without your permission
  • allows you to get money for your work

Copyright and use of your work
It is important for you not to lose ownership or control of your copyright. When you give someone permission to use your work, you can ask for money in exchange.

Copyright and employed or commissioned visual artists
If you are paid to make an artwork, portrait or photograph for private use by someone else, you probably won’t own the copyright. The person paying for this work will be the copyright owner.

Moral rights for visual artists
Moral rights are personal rights that connect the creator of a work to their work.

As a visual artist, moral rights mean that:

  • people must know you are the creator of your work if it is shown in public
  • no one else can be named as the creator of your work
  • your work cannot be treated in a way that hurts your reputation

You should have an opinion on how your work is to be shown and how your name appears with your work. If someone is going to show your work in public make sure you tell them how you want it to be seen by other people.

Exhibitions, festivals and competitions
If you enter your work in an exhibition, festival, art prize or competition there are usually conditions of entry which you are asked to agree to before sending your work. Make sure that you have received, read and understood the conditions of entry before sending any work to the organisers. Get legal advice if there is anything you do not understand or do not agree to.

Summary

  • Usually, you own the copyright in visual works you create.
  • You always have moral rights in relation to your work.
  • Copyright is shown by the letter ‘c’ in a circle, followed by your name, and the year you made that work. For example: © Name Surname 2010. (A good place for this is on the back of an artwork).

If your work is shown in public you should have the following information somewhere near it, and in any catalogue:

  • your name
  • title of artwork (in italics)
  • the materials used in the artwork
  • the year the work was made
  • No one should use your work without your written permission or licence.
  • When you put a work in an exhibition, festival, art prize or competition, make sure you sign a fair and balanced contract with the organisers.

Legal tips

  • You are allowed to say what permission you will give and negotiate a payment of money in exchange for your permission.
  • If you are giving permission to use your work or are employed by someone to create art, write down what you have agreed.
  • Always have a written contract between you and a gallery or exhibition organiser.
  • Get legal advice. Do not sign or agree to anything you do not understand.
  • If you are employed to create work, or paid to make a portrait or photograph, you probably won’t own the copyright. But remember that you still have moral rights. You must still be credited as the artist if your work is shown in public.
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