What Does it Mean if Fine Art Has a Copyright?

by Jennifer Mueller Google
This symbol provides notice that a work is protected by U.S. copyright law.

This symbol provides notice that a work is protected by U.S. copyright law.

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U.S. copyright law protects works of visual art, including paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints or reproductions. Three-dimensional art, including sculptures and architectural works, are also protected. Copyright secures exclusive rights for the artist, and provides remedies if those rights are violated or the artist’s work is otherwise misused.

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Exclusive Rights

Copyright law provides an artist the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute copies of her work, such as creating and selling prints of a painting. The artist also has the exclusive right to display her work in any public or private space, or to create derivative works based on that original piece. Artists may license these rights to others. For example, a painter may authorize a gallery to display her painting and create prints to sell in the gallery’s gift shop.

Moral Rights

Artists who create one-of-a-kind works of visual art also have the “moral” rights of attribution and integrity. The right of attribution requires the original artist to be correctly identified with reference to his work. The right of integrity ensures the artist’s work will not be modified or destroyed in any way that would damage the artist’s reputation. Moral rights are also extended to limited editions, provided there are 200 or fewer numbered editions.


Distribution of copies of a work to the public constitutes “publication” under U.S. copyright law. Prior to 1978, publication was required to obtain copyright protection. Copyright law protects works created on or after January 1, 1978, regardless of publication. Publicly displaying a work of art, even if there is a fee charged to view the work, is not necessarily publication. Similarly, if a piece of one-of-a-kind art is sold, that sale is not publication. Generally, art is considered published when photographs or prints of the work are distributed to the public. Publication in the United States triggers a legal obligation to deposit copies of the work with the Library of Congress.

Duration of Copyright

How long copyright protection endures depends on when the work was created. All works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published between 1923 and 1963 obtained copyright protection when published with copyright notice affixed. Those works are subject to a 28-year initial term plus a 67-year automatic renewal term. Works that were created prior to 1978, but not published, have copyright protection for the life of the author plus 70 years, or until Dec. 31, 2002, whichever is longer. If a work was created before 1978, but published between Jan. 1, 1978, and Dec. 31, 2002, it is protected by copyright for the life of the author plus 70 years, or until Dec. 31, 2047, whichever is longer. Non-anonymous or pseudonymous works created after Jan. 1, 1978 are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.


If an artist discovers someone has infringed one of his exclusive or moral rights, he can sue that individual for copyright infringement. In court, the artist must prove he holds a valid copyright, that the alleged infringer saw or had the opportunity to see his work, and that the infringement does not fall within certain exceptions, such as that for "fair use." If the artist prevails, the court will issue an injunction against further infringement and may impound infringing pieces already in existence. Additionally, if the artist’s copyright is registered, she may receive monetary damages, costs and attorney’s fees from the infringer.