Can You Get Your Art Copyrighted?

by Cindy Hill
Copyright protects artists' economic interests in their work.

Copyright protects artists' economic interests in their work.

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Copyright protection gives an artist the exclusive right to his original creative work for a specific length of time--usually the artist's life plus 70 years. Federal law defines the types of works that can be covered by copyright, including works of fine art and literary and musical creations.

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Eligible Work

Original artwork is explicitly covered by federal copyright law, provided it meets the low threshold established to qualify as "original." The requirement of originality is satisfied as long as the work has some creative spark, regardless of how critics might assess its aesthetic value or artistic merit. If an artwork incorporates unoriginal elements, the artist only has copyright protection for the portion of work that is original. For example, if an artist uses photographs taken by another person in a collage, the artist may claim copyright in the general collage design, but not the photographs.

Tangible Medium

Copyright protection attaches as soon as an original creative work is fixed in a tangible medium. This means that an artist's idea or vision for future artwork still in his head is not protected by copyright, but it is as soon he commits that idea to a fixed form. The fixed medium cannot be wholly ephemeral, however. A sketch in the sand on a beach with an oncoming tide would be insufficient to trigger copyright protection, although transforming it to a fixed digital file by taking a photo of it would secure copyright.


Copyright law gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to reproduce, display and distribute his creative original works for the duration of the copyright. The copyright holder also has the exclusive right to make derivative works. This is a valuable right for a visual artist as it allows him to control the production of merchandise, such as calendars, greeting cards, posters, t-shirts or coffee mugs, bearing the image of his artwork. The copyright holder can license or sell these rights to others. The purpose of the copyright protection is to allow artists to economically benefit from their work, reaping the rewards of the fruits of their labor. Society benefits from copyright law because it helps encourage creative individuals to produce more artistic works.


Copyright protection arises as soon as the creative work is placed into a fixed form, without any need for the artist to take any additional steps. However, registering the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office conveys advantages to the artist seeking to protect his copyright. Filing promptly after creating the work allows the artist to seek additional damages for infringement in court. An artwork copyright can be registered by completing the U.S. Copyright Office's online application, providing a sample of the work and paying the modest registration fee. An online legal document provider can help you with the registration process.