UK Copyright law for artists

The UK copyright law protects the originators of a work (art, writing, film, music etc.) from having their material copied and sold for someone else's benefit. 

The law on copyright varies around the world, so this article can only give a rough idea on the protections that the law offers. 

Once you have an idea of the general protections available, you are advised to search for your own countries sources for more detailed information. 

Although this page mainly concerns UK copyright law there is also a briefing on USA copyright. 

At some stage this topic is going to crop up - and you will need to have a notion about the current rules and laws. 

Read any art magazine over a period of a year and this topic will be aired - either in an article or as a question and answer item. 

What is the definition of copyright?

The original artist has the right of protection from people copying his or her idea and making money out of it. 

That is it in simple terms. Different countries have slightly differing slants on the general international situation and these notes try to make sense of the UK copyright law.

Copyright has been a matter for the courts since Albrecht Durer brought a case against an engraver in Italy in 1506 and has been argued about ever since. 

In the UK, the most recent bit of legislations was in 1988 - the Copyright Designs and Patents Act (DCPA). This was later amended in 1990. 

All artists steal, and have done so for centuries. The practice has been for students to learn by copying the works of the masters, so this muddies the waters quite a bit. 

What are the basic rules of UK copyright law?

In the UK, copyright exists as soon as a work is made in one of seven 'traditional' forms.

  • Painting
  • Collage
  • Sculpture
  • Graphics
  • Photography
  • Architecture
  • and wholly computer originated work

Copyright arises irrespective of the subject matter.

In the UK there are no legal formalities, copyright just happens!

It is sensible to mark the work in some way and a name or monogram, a date and the international copyright symbol (©) as this gives notice to the world that the work is protected and should not be copied. It doesn't stop copying, but if you later go to law it is very helpful as a warning. 

Your name confirms you establish MORAL RIGHT and the date confirms the year you completed and published the work. 

In the UK copyright exists on a work for the life of the originator and then 70 years - though for works made after 1989 (this will relate to copyright on your own work) there are different number of years for different media (computer work for instance is life plus 50 years). 

If someone buys an original picture and the picture carries a warning that copyright is reserved by the artist, that means the buyer does not acquire copyright, and the artist is free to produce more copies of his work and sell them. 

If the copyright warning is not there on a picture you wish to use as a source, it does not mean that you are free to copy. 

There is no fixed percentage of 'variation' from the original which makes a copy legal, even though there are many stories circulating (in quite reputable magazines) which maintain that if you change a picture by a certain amount you will be able to sell the image as your 'original'. 

The majority of the law on copyright is down to case law in the UK and that makes it difficult. It depends on what a judge thinks on the day that the case comes to court. 

An author who works as an employed writer does not own the copyright - that rests with the employer. However, since 1989 someone who commissions a work from an artist no longer acquires the copyright automatically with the picture - prior to that date they did. 

If you mark your picture ‘© copyright reserved by the artist’ you put a buyer on notice hat they cannot sell copies even though they own the original. The right to sell copies of a picture you have bought may be negotiated with the artist.  This particularly applies to photographs where you may want to use someone else's image to produce a painting. 

Can I copy a picture?

In general terms there is nothing to prevent you from making a copy. 

What you MUST NOT DO is sell it!

You ARE allowed to copy a work if it is ...

  1. for research and study
  2. for criticism or review, provided the author of the work is credited in the publication
  3. for news reporting of current events
  4. for making a two dimension copy of a 3 dimensional work sited in a public space or with public access
  5. for incidental inclusion in a film or TV program

Effectively, no one will act to sue you for copying unless it is worth their while to do so, therefore your copy must have produced good profits to justify the action. Companies like "Macdonalds" and "Disney" however, will sue anyone who uses their logo - regardless.

Can I copy a photo in a magazine, book or newspaper?

Not if your source is original and subject to copyright. If you take a photo of an item which is not subject to copyright, then no copyright exists and you would be able to use the image, HOWEVER, many photos these days ARE subject to copyright by the original photographer and the name in question is then given below the image in a newspaper or magazine, or inside the covers of a book. This can often be a commercial bureau, who handle rights for copying. 

Beware of using pictures from the Internet unless you KNOW they are freely available for you to work from (e.g. the image files on or Paint my Photo). You are free to copy the "Old Masters" as they have been (mostly) dead for over 70 years - watch out for the likes of David Hockney, however. He was still alive at the time of writing (2020). 

It is all a thorny topic, just beware of copying and if you do, acknowledge that your work is a copy in the title. 

USA copyright law

USA copyright las applies to images posted by USA artists and the laws there are different. There is a separate note on this below.

You may need to check the position if you are in the USA, as the rules are more extensive and there are many areas where regulations differ from Europe. A good first reference (free) is the Wikipedia page on copyright. 

If you want to read up more about the UK copyright law then look at this site:

This is the official UK Government Copyright site. Beware of a load of commercial copyright into sites on the Internet search pages that attempt to sell you a commercial service. This is not necessary. 

If you live elsewhere in the world, then search your local area for information. The rules in Europe are mostly governed by the EU regulations set in 1993 and later, which are summarised in the Wikipedia article. EU law applies with variants throughout the EU states as each country adopts the law as it wishes. You may need to do some further searching in other areas of the world. 

Comment from Lynn Brunn in the USA concerning USA copyright

While it is true that a copyright exists from the moment a work (whether photographic or art) is created in tangible form, and no copyright is required, the professional photographer/artist (and others) may wish to register their work within the US Copyright office in order to have the full assurance of the full protection of the law. 

If the work is registered before a copyright infringement happens, or with 90 days of publication, you can sue for statutory damages ($750 to $150,000) and legal fees. Otherwise, you can only claim what your work may have sold for.

You may register online or download an application, and submit your work. The fee is $35 online, or $50 to %65 if submitted via mail.

Unpublished work may be registered as a collection on an application and you will only be required to pay the fee once for the entire batch.

It will take from 2-6 months (or longer) to received the Certificate of Registration. However, you may choose to expedite delivery for an additional fee of $760.00

Another option (or for additional protection) is obtaining a Creative Commons license (CCL). A Creative Commons License will allow you to share your work without losing Copyright ownership. With a CCL you specify exactly how the work is to be used and if credit is required.

A CCL does not offer the same protection you would receive had you registered the copyright. However, you may also add a CCL after registering for a Copyright.

As always, serious and professional artists/photographers are encouraged to seek the advice of a Copyright Attorney.

USA note posted here October 2017

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