The U.S. Copyright Office allows artists to register copyrights to their work that limit others' ability to create derivative works or sell the work without seeking permission from the copyright holder. Stencils may be copyrighted in one of several categories, including two-dimensional or three-dimensional artwork or, if they are a design for jewelry, as jewelry designs. The Fair Use Doctrine allows people to use copyrighted items for personal and some educational use, so simply using stencils in a classroom art project or to trace a design does not constitute copyright infringement. If, however, you intend to use a stencil to create a design you are going to sell, or if you wish to sell the stencil, you may need permission.
Search the U.S. Copyright Office's copyright registry by navigating to the office's website and selecting the search option. You can search online records dating back to 1978 or submit a request to find copyright records for items copyrighted prior to 1978. Search according to the name of the stencil, name of the artist or a description of the stencil. Items do not have to be registered with the Copyright Office to have copyright protection, so if you find no copyright registry, this does not mean the item is not copyrighted.
Ask about the copyright holder at the location where you found the stencil. For example, if you printed a stencil online, try contacting the webmaster for the website. If you purchased the stencil at a store, check for packaging information indicating who owns the copyrights. You can also ask the store manager about the wholesaler or artist from whom the stencil was purchased.
Contact the copyright holder in writing and ask to use the stencils. Be specific about your intended use. If you receive permission, use the stencils only in the limited use for which you have received permission. You may be asked to give credit to the original artist, to only sell a limited number of items made from the stencils, or to follow other requests. Failure to comply with these requests could constitute copyright infringement.
Tips & Warnings
- Not all stencils are copyrighted, and some stencil-makers want purchasers to use the stencils to make items for resale. However, you should still contact the manufacturer prior to using the stencils, because fines and civil penalties for copyright violation can be significant.
References & Resources
- Copyright: Examples and Explanations; Stephen M. McJohn
- Principles of Copyright Law; Roger E. Schechter et al.
- U.S. Copyright Office: Search Copyright Information
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images