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About Copyright and other issues

As we not only print copies of artworks but also publish books, we receive lots of enquires from artist and photographers about what they can publish, copy or reproduce or not.

This article is a practical guide about copyright and do not pretend to replace the advice of a solicitor, but, it will help you as starter.


Copyright is legal right that protects the use of your work once your idea has been physically expressed. The current copyright legislation in the UK is the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. You can find out more about copyright legislation by visiting the Intellectual Property Office.

I want you to notice the word: IDEA.

This is a very important issue. The copyright belong to the author of the IDEA, not to the person/s who made it (of course, they can be the same).

Simple, let say you have the idea to create an image. But you do not know how to do it. You can find someone who can help you. But even when that person will “make” the job, as it was your idea, the copyright belongs to you.

When somebody commissioned a job the copyright belong to the author and not to the “maker”.

In the UK, copyright in artistic works (Written, dramatic, musical and artistic work) generally lasts for the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years after their death. Some exceptions apply, for instance for engravings that were unpublished at the time of the artist’s death.

Selling, licencing your artwork

As an artist you need to remember the concept of the “IDEA”.

You need to separate the “IDEA” from the artwork itself (the paint, as an example). It means when you sell your artwork you are NOT selling the authorization to make copies of it. Or the opposite, you can sell the authorization to make copies but keep the artwork itself. It is a very interesting fact: You should always make a high quality digital reproduction of your artwork as you can make copies in the future and sell them, even if you sold the original.

Of course you can sell or transfer the copyright if you want. You can sell it “forever” (But the new owner will keep the copyright only after 70 years of his death) or you can sell it for a period of time.

You can sell it for a particular use and keep the copyright for others uses (You can give the permission to someone to make postcards, but nothing else, as an example)

You can also allow limited access to your artwork, free of charge if you wish. You can do it by using a “Creative Commons Licence”.

It is illegal to sell a copy of an artist work without the original artist permission. That would be Copyright infringement.

Using others artist as “inspiration” or part of your artwork: Derivative works

A derivative work is a work that is based on (derived from) another work; for example a painting based on a photograph, a collage, a musical work based on an existing piece or samples, a screenplay based on a book

There is an interesting side when you create your artwork and use someone else creation’s as part of your one.

As examples, we can mention collages (made with other’s artist’s images) or posters with quotes.

Basically you need to find out if the original artwork is still protected by the copyright law. It can be because of the author is still alive (or death, but no more than 70 years ago) or the copyright is administrated by a society. (e.g.: you cannot use any Salvador Dali’s artwork as he appointed the Spanish State as sole legatee of his intellectual property rights. These rights are administered through the Foundation Gala-Salvador Dali).

The fair dealing or fair use.

In copyright law, there is a concept of fair use, also known as; free use, fair dealing, or fair practice.

This is the term that some people use when they are using others artist’s artworks without having their permission. The true is you can use others artist’s creations but on very limited occasions such as:

  • Research or Private Study
  • Instruction or examination
  • Criticism or Review
  • News/Reporting
  • Incidental inclusion
  • Accessibility for someone with visual impairment
  • Parody or pastiche

But even you can use it; it will be up to the kind of material if you are actually allowed to. As an example, you cannot use the work if it is photography. Please Read this fact-sheet to learn more about it:

But, in a simple way and again, as an example, you cannot use a poem/phrase in your artwork if the poem/phrase is still under the copyright law. Even if you mention the source.