Get a grip on copyright


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Getting a grip on copyright can be one of the greatest tools in your creative kit. I have met so many creatives who don’t understand copyright law, and this so often puts them at a disadvantage with their clients.

I have studied copyright law, but it does change quite often, so it is important for you to check what the latest laws are in your country. Most countries follow the same copy rights laws, apart from China. In this article I am going to talk about the UK copyright laws.

Copyright law doesn’t have to be scary. I’m going to talk you through a few basics, and explain a few exceptions to the rules. This should be enough to empower you to make the right decisions when selling your work or taking on a commission or employment.

In the podcast below I talk through the basic principles of copyright law, how it can make you money and how to explain to your clients what your rights are.

Here are the basics

  1. As a creative, when you produce a piece of work, whether it is a painting, photograph or writing, you own the copyright.
  2. You don’t need to register your work, for you to own the copyright to it. In the states and the UK you can register your work to prove that you own the copyright, but this isn’t a requirement.
  3. You can add the copyright symbol © at the bottom of your website or work, but again it isn’t a requirement. I like to add it to remind people to respect my copyright.
  4. If you sell your work (like a painting or photograph) you retain the copyright. Even if the work is a portrait of the client, you have the rights to the copyright. They have no right to make copies of the work, whether they sell them or not.You can sell them the copyright- but I’ll cover this later on.

Exceptions to the rules

There will always be some exceptions to the rules, so it is important that you check with your own country’s law as to what the exceptions are. They also change regularly, so it is important to make sure that you are up to date with your knowledge.

  1. Sometimes Universities believe that they have the rights to the student’s work. This isn’t always the case.I had it happen to me when I was a student. It involved a large print that I had produced at the University and they tried to say that they owned it. A quick check of copyright law and the print was mine.When you apply to become a student at University or College, it is really important that you check whether you retain the rights to your own work. Some places will require that you had over the rights to your work as part of the enrolment process.If you aren’t sure- ASK! I always think that it is better to find out than try to claim your rights back afterwards. They will likely respect you for thinking about it in the first place. It shows that you are acting like a professional.
  2. If you work as a member of staff at a University and are on the permanent payroll, it is highly likely that the University will own the rights to the research and work that you produce from it.So if you produce a book based on research that you completed while under the employment of the University, you need to check who owns the rights.
  3. If you work as a freelancer and are them employed by someone like a design agency, the work that you produce there is then owned by the employer. This can also mean any ideas that you come up with while you are there as well. (Although how the thought police can read your mind, I have no idea!)It is important for you to find out if this is the case when you take on employment as a freelancer. You don’t want to find out that your best piece of work is suddenly owned by someone else.

How you can make money out of your copyright

Now, the reason I am so passionate about you understanding copyright laws, is that it can help you to make money out of your creative work. That should be a good enough reason to get your head around the basics!

Holding onto your own copyright when you produce a piece of work allows you to make artist prints from it, or print it onto other objects like cards and mugs. This also applies to choreographers. What ever your creative output, you own the copyright to it.

This is a useful link to copyright law for choreographers:

Let me lead you through the basics.

  1. You can licence your work. This effectively means that you sell the right to someone else to make copies of your work, for a limited number of editions, for a limited amount of time.You could licence your work to a card company or someone who wants to print onto umbrellas, bedding or mugs. Always be a little aware of what this means for the original piece of art work. If your work over saturates the market it can have a detrimental effect on the price of the original.You might feel that you would make more money selling the license than you would from selling the original, and that’s fine, I only want you to think about the consequences of all the actions you take.
  2. If your copyright has been infringed (used without your permission) you might be entitled to compensation. In the first place you should approach the party and inform them that they are infringing on your copyright. You could then get them to pay a license to print your work, or else you can request compensation if they have made a profit from your work.I have had several cases of the national press using my photographic work without my permission. A quick phone call to the account’s department usually sorts it out and the publishing fee is paid to me.You can read more about what to do if it happens to you here: 
  3. Sometimes you might spot your art work on the wall of a TV show. This is an infringement of copyright law, but you need to be careful with how you approach infringements like this. There is no point going in saying that you are going to sue. A simple telephone call might be all it takes, and a request for you to be recognised as the artist. You need to weigh up whether the exposure is worth more than the fee you would sue from them.
  4. Selling your copyright with your work is another way to make money. I see photographers sign away their copyright for a job rather than thinking first about what that copyright is actually worth.If you believe that you could make a lot more money from reprints or adding your work to a picture library, then it is important that you negotiate that (or part of that cost) cost for selling your copyright as an extra.

At the end of the podcast I have set you a copyright challenge. I want you to write up an agreement between you and your clients. In this agreement you need to point out what the copyright law is in relation to your work, and whether the client has a right to that copyright or not.

Don’t be frightened of copyright law. It is there to protect you, and help you to make money from the creative work that you produce. If you have a copyright questions, do let me know in the comments below. 

These are some links that might help you with further research.