Artistate Q & A


Copyright is an exclusive right which allows artists to control whether their work can be reproduced, transformed or adapted into a ‘derivative work’. Copyright is understood as an economic right because, in addition to allowing artists to authorise or restrict the copying or adaptation of their work, it offers them the opportunity to charge a copyright royalty to those who wish to reproduce or adapt their work.

1. Must I register my copyright?

In the UK, artists do not need to register their copyright. The author of a work is automatically the first owner of any copyright in it. There are exceptions to the general rule, including literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works made by employees in the course of employment, Crown copyright, parliamentary copyright and copyright owned by certain international organisations.

2. How long will my copyright last for?

The duration of copyright protection in the UK varies depending on the form of authorship. If the artist is the sole author of the work, they have a copyright in it from the work's creation until 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the artist dies. If the creation is a work of joint authorship or co-authorship, all authors of the work have a copyright in the work from its creation until 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the last known author dies. If the work is of unknown authorship, copyright expires at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made; or if, during that period, the work is made available to the public, at the end of the period of 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which it is first so made available. Finally, authors of computer-generated artistic works have a copyright in such works for 50 years from the end of the calendar year in which the work was made.

3. Can I transfer my copyright to someone else?

The transfer of copyright is possible and is known as an ‘assignment’. The assignment of copyright can be elective or automatic. An elective assignment occurs when the author chooses to transfer ownership of their copyright to someone else either by sale or by gift. This can be done at any point in time before or after the copyright work is created but it must be done in writing and signed. The assignment is automatic in circumstances where ownership of copyright is transferred without any intervention by the author. Copyright can for example be inherited by intestacy.

4. What happens to my copyright when I sell one of my works?

In principle, copyright remains vested in the artist.  In other words, the sale of the artwork itself does not transfer copyright from the artist to the buyer of the work.  However, it is possible for the artist to assign copyright to the buyer.  Few artists choose to do so. 

When an artwork is sold, and copyright remains with the artist, rights in the work are split.  The rights to the physical artwork vest in the buyer of the work who can sell, gift, or lend it, whilst the copyright, and the right to collect copyright royalties, remain with the artist.  This also means that the buyer of the artwork cannot reproduce it without the artist’s consent. Further information on royalties can be found in the Artist's Resale Right Q&A.

5. Are there exceptions to my copyright?

Under English Law, copyright is subject to a number of exceptions. They include specific uses such as, in certain limited circumstances, the illustration of the work in a catalogue advertising its sale, or the reproduction of a work (other than street art) permanently situated in a public place or in premises open to the public. Additional exceptions can be invoked under the doctrine of fair dealing which permits the limited use of copyright material for the purposes of criticism, review, caricature or parody, amongst others.

By Mona Yapova, Constantine Cannon LLP

The law varies from country to country.  In this section of the website, we describe the law as it applies in England and Wales.  Whilst similar principles apply in other European countries, and to a lesser extent, in the USA, please do not assume that the law is the same.  For example, artists have stronger moral rights in countries applying the Napoleonic codes than in England and Wales. The information provided on this page is general and may not apply in a specific situation. In doubt, please seek legal advice. This information is not intended to create, nor does receipt of it constitute, a lawyer-client relationship. The authors accept no responsibility for the content of this page.

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