I get a ton of questions about how copyrights work in regards to art and whether or not you need to purchase a legal copyright for each piece that you do. To answer some of these FAQs I've found a great Q&A by Anastasia Winslow. Winslow is an intellectual property attorney in Princeton, NJ, where she practices patent and copyright law. She also is an adjunct professor of copyright and patent law at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, NJ. Q.
What do I have to do to get copyrights in my artwork?
A. Basically nothing. Under the copyright law, an artist is protected as soon as his or her original work is "fixated in a tangible medium," that means, as soon as the brush hits the canvas. The basic requirement for obtaining copyrights is originality. An artist can only get copyrights in his or her original expression, i.e., that which originates from the artist and is not copied from someone or something else
Q. Do I need to get approval from the Copyright Office to protect my work?
A. No, not unless you are filing a lawsuit. You need to get a copyright registration certificate if you want to sue someone for copyright infringement. It is not necessary before that, although it is advisable. Certain legal rights can be lost if a registration certificate is not obtained within three months of the first publication of your work. For example, you could lose the right to recover attorneys’ fees in an infringement case, or to recover statutory damages that occurred before a registration certificate was obtained.
Q. Is it a complicated process to get a copyright registration certificate?
A. No. It’s actually rather simple. It basically involves filling out a two-page form and sending the form to the Copyright Office with $20.00 and three copies of your work. If you call the Copyright Office, they will send you forms to fill out along with a step-by-step "how to" instruction booklet.
Q. Is my work protected if I put it in a magazine or on the Internet?
A. Theoretically, yes. Increasing the circulation of your work legally does not erode your copyrights. It does not mean someone is more entitled to copy your work. In fact, one could say it increases your rights. To sue someone for copyright infringement, you could prove an accused person copied your work by showing (1) a substantial similarity between your work and theirs and (2) access to your work. An increased circulation of your work, through the Internet or otherwise, could make it easier for you to prove access. On the other hand, from a practical point of view, publicizing your work makes it more available to others to copy it without your knowledge. This means your copyrights may be violated, and if you do not know about it, there’s really not anything you can do — until you find out. So as a bottom line, whether you want to place your work on the Internet or in other publications depends on your own views about how much control you personally want to maintain over who sees your work.
Q. When I sell my work, does the buyer have the right to copy it or take and sell photos or prints of it?
A. No. Selling a painting, sculpture, or other artwork is a sale of the object only. The sale does not convey copyrights, unless you specifically agree to do that. This means the person who buys your work has no right to make copies of your work or even to adapt it into another form. For example, the buyer of a painting cannot photograph your work or make posters of it and sell the photos or the posters. The buyer of a sculpture cannot copy it to make molded versions of the sculpture, whether they be simulations or plastic, miniaturized versions of the sculpture. Only you as owner and author of the copyrights can do that. You do not need a contract with the buyers to retain these rights. And if you find that one of your buyers has reproduced or adapted your work without your permission, you are entitled to sue him or her for copyright infringement.
(Q&A above from http://www.slowart.com/articles/copy.htm)
Q. I've heard that I can protect my work by mailing myself a copy of my artwork and saving the sealed/postmarked envelope in case of a lawsuit- at which time I could prove when I created the original artwork. Is this true?
A. (According to Jonathan Bailey of www.plagiarismtoday.com)
Unfortunatly, no. This is the called the Myth Of Poor Man's Copyright (PMC).What is Poor Man's Copyright? The idea is simple. You create a work, be it a written piece, a photograph, a drawing or a CD, and decide that you can't afford or don't want to pay the U.S. Copyright Office fees to register your work formally. So, rather than send your work to Uncle Sam, you put it in a nice, shiny envelope and mail it to yourself. Upon its return it has both your name and a nice date stamp, proof positive that the work belonged to you on that date and was created before that. You spend less than a dollar and get proof positive of both the date the work was created and who the owner is. All you have to do is keep the envelope in a safe place and never open it up. The theory from there goes as follows. In the event of a later copyright dispute, you take this sealed envelope with you to court and open it up in front of the jurors, judge and gallery proving that the work is yours. One hopes that there is no way they can lose a copyright case with such solid evidence on their side. The problems start early for PMC. Simply placing a work into an envelope and mailing it to yourself does not prove ownership. You sign no forms, make no statements and offer no proof of creation. People mail things that they do not hold the copyright to all of the time and the courts know that. Second, envelopes can be steamed open and postmarks can be smudged, altered or unreadable. While you can mitigate those by sending the document special delivery, which offers better sealing envelopes and clearer postmarks, it is more expensive and likely can't be done from home. Then, in the courtroom, things don't get any better. First off, the court room will not be a federal one, but a state one. Since you didn't register your work, you can not sue in federal court and, thus, will only be eligible to receive either the amount the infringement made or the amount you lost, whichever is greater. Sadly, in many, if not most, copyright matters that amount is equal to exactly zero. If you want to protect your works, there is simply no substitute for the U.S. Copyright Office.
To read the full article on The Poor Man's Copyright myth, you can find it here: http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2006/08/25/the-myth-of-poor-mans-copyright/
A few other things to consider...
1. When posting work online- never upload a high resolution file. In other words don't post images that are large enough (or high quality enough) for someone to download, print, and sell. If the image gets pixelated (blurry) when they try to print it it will deter reproduction.
2. Use watermarks on your artwork when posted online. A watermark is a faint design or signature that is visible on the artwork and typically identifies the maker. Here are some good examples of watermarked images:
A watermarked stock image from Deposit Photos
My "Alice" piece with a watermark
Jasmine Becket-Griffith always watermarks her works
Artist's Rights Society: http://www.arsny.com/basics.html
Plagiarism Today: http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/
In conclusion- with the internet today and things like photoshop it's pretty difficult to protect yourself 100%, however that is the risk we must take to share our art with the world. With that said- there are some tricks to keeping your art safer. Hope this helps! xoxo L