Welcome back to our series Ask Angella, where we do exactly that.
If you’ve ever had a potentially sensitive creative question, we want you to throw it our way so that we can hand it over to Angella: our resident art writer, expert, and all-around kind, funny and wise human being. Here’s the question we’ll tackle this month:
“I know that understanding copyright laws is an essential part of being an artist, but they are so confusing and so boring that it’s hard to know where to start. Can you give me the low-down on the things I absolutely need to know?”
Half the battle is knowing how the battle works before it begins. Note: As far as I understand, this information covers copyright law in America. Also, our lawyers would also like us to remind you that this is simply our advice to you to help you avoid legal trouble, but if you have any specific questions or issues then you should consult a legal professional.
The Creative Independent defines a copyright as “a type of intellectual property that protects original works expressed (the legal term is “fixed”) in a tangible form. This includes a broad range of creative works, such as photographs, visual art, audio recordings, sheet music, novels, and screenplays.”
Copyright doesn’t extend to “intangibles” meaning your ideas, dreams, facts, or instructions aren’t covered (But could you imagine?!). Similarly, cliches, idioms, and genre stereotypes cannot be copyrighted. For example, meet-cute scenes in movies or an illustration of a politician or celebrity with multiple microphones in their face to signify the press, etc etc. Once you finish your work and according to copyright law, copyright automatically attaches and that work is protected. Under that same law you have a handful of exclusive rights including the right to reproduce, distribute, display, sell and create “derivative works” of the original. You can also put that cool little © symbol with your or your company name on it and the year it was made. (It’s called a copyright notice.) The Creative Independent also recommends registering your copyright if you plan to license out work—say a pattern or an illustration that may be used more than a few times. Without registering your copyright, you have less power to litigate against infringement, which leads us to my next point.
Ah, a creator’s nightmare. Infringement includes unauthorized reproductions, distributing or offering your work for download (if you’re a photographer or a musician for example), and straight up copying. We’re talking bootlegs, blatant rip-offs, or profiteering. In order to establish a case for infringement you have to prove that the copycat or infringer has had access to your work (in order to copy it), that they indeed stole your idea, and lastly, that it looks similar enough to yours that there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind they stole it. As you can see, it’s a nebulous process especially if someone coincidentally made something extremely similar to you. By the same virtue, they could consider you an infringer, too. The zeitgeist is a powerful force.
How does this affect digital or online work?
This gets tricky. Posting online is an artist’s primary way of exposing their art to the world. If you’re a photographer, you of course want your images to look crisp for web, but also how to keep them from getting screen grabbed and reused without permission elsewhere? To prevent infringement and to protect your intellectual property, you could place watermarks on your images, upload low-res images, create a irreplicable artist signature (I think artists should combine the two, Olan Mills style. Someone please start this trend!), and if you haven’t already, make sure you have a contract in place with any entity—be that a collaborator, company, LLC, brand, etc—before you release any work of yours into the wild. Protect and respect yourself.
(For more in-depth info on lawerly, i.e. legal, resources, check out https://vlany.org/).
Artwork by Elizabeth Graeber