Copyright has been with us in this country ever since the earliest prints were published with the notation along the bottom that they had been “Entered according to act of Congress”. The concept actually goes back to William Hogarth (1697-1764) and even Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), both of whom had to take measures against others who were copying and reproducing their images without permission. A history of the concept and full information about copyrights today will soon be found in my Artful Dodgers: Fraud and Foolishness in the Art Market. After all, I taught copyright law to appraisers at George Washington University, Rhode Island School of Design, University of Nebraska-Kansas City, University of California- Irvine and other venues.
So here are some frequently asked and widely misunderstood questions:
- If I buy an original artwork, do I then have the copyright? NO. The copyright automatically belongs to the creator of the work, but can be defended in court only if it has also been registered with the Copyright Office. It belongs to that creator until and only if it is passed in writing. This need not be a long legal document. It can be written on a sales receipt or as a simple statement, but the artist must give up his rights to the image for commercial use.
- Does this mean that I could own and dislay the original painting but the artist could still publish and distribute reproductions? YES. It’s quite possible.
- Can I make reproductions (prints) of my painting which I bought and sell them? NOT without owning the copyright. You might use the image in a non-commercial context, such as your family Christmas card, but you cannot sell reproductions. Galleries will often use an artist’s image in an exhibition invitation without formally getting permission to do so, but this is usually not a problem because they are not selling the invitations and the publication is in support of the artist.
- If I’m an artist, do I own the copyrights to my art internationally, or only in the U.S.? PROBABLY you do. The US compliance with international (and reciprocal) copyright stems from our finally joining the Berne Convention in 1988 with the passage by Congress of the Berne Convention Implementation Act (which became effective March 1, 1989). Some important protections for artists were added with the Visual Artists Rights Act in December, 1990. International copyright protection is, as you would expect, a bit more complicated and detailed questions should probably be answered by an intellectual property attorney.
This last piece of legislation carries some very intersting provisions and I’ll make it the topic of a future posting on this blog.
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