What Every Artist Needs to Know About Copyright Laws


As an artist, you can find inspiration in anything. From the world around you to the billboards on the highway and even the marketing materials in your local paper, inspiration is all around you. Many artists practice and hone their skills by copying the works of other artists. It is important to remember, however, that there are laws that protect creative works – you can’t sell something that is copied from someone else. Keep reading to learn what every artist needs to know about copyright laws.

Common Myths About Copyright

Before learning the basics about copyright laws, it might be good to learn the truth about some common myths about copyright. Even if you think you know the basics, you might not! Here are some of the most commonly believed myths about copyright law:

  • The concept of “fair use” means that you can reproduce and use a work of art if you change at least 10% of it. In reality, “fair use” applies to teaching, criticism, and review. You can reproduce a work for the purpose of learning, but as soon as you exhibit it, the function has changed and it is a breach of copyright.
  • If the artwork is “old,” the copyright is likely no longer valid. In most countries, copyright expires 70 years after the creator has died – not after the work was created. Consider this – Picasso died in 1973, so his works are still copyrighted until 2043.
  • Small infractions are not a big deal. Even if you feel like no one will care about your work or that you won’t be caught, there is always the possibility of prosecution and you could face some pretty hefty fines – up to thousands of dollars.
  • There’s no harm in using the work of someone who has made plenty of money from it. Even if an artist has become famous, their work is their livelihood and unfair use of that work is just as much theft as it would be to take an object from someone’s home.

When it comes to copyright, sometimes the details can get a little fuzzy. Just to be safe, however, you should avoid using any material unless you are absolutely positive it isn’t copyrighted.

Tips for Keeping Your Artwork Legal

Now that you’ve debunked some of the most common myths about copyright, you’re ready to learn the basics about copyright to keep your own work legal. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Always use your own source material when possible. Rather than finding photos online to use as references, for example, learn basic photography and take your own photographs.
  • If you must use someone else’s material, check and double-check that it is out of copyright. If you’re not sure, don’t risk it!
  • Use public domain images. Websites like Flickr and Wikimedia Commons allow you to search for images that are available under the Creative Commons (CC) license. You may also be able to use images with some restrictions if you credit the owner.
  • If you really need to use someone else’s material, ask for permission. Write to the magazine, publisher, or website to ask if you can use the material – the worst they can say is no.
  • Protect yourself by knowing the laws in your area and by keeping track of your sources.

Copyright laws exist to protect intellectual property and physical works of art. As an artist, you need to be familiar with them, so you don’t impinge on someone else’s rights and to protect your own work.


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