How to Copyright a Graphic Design

How to Copyright a Graphic Design

by Jane Haskins, Esq., September 2015

To be eligible for copyright protection, graphics must meet these criteria:

  • They must be the artist or designer’s original work:  graphics must originate with the artist and they must display some minimal amount of creativity.
  • A graphic must be fixed in a physical object, such as paper, a sign, an article of clothing or a digital medium.  You can’t copyright an idea for a graphic.
  • Copyright protection does not extend to familiar symbols or designs; names, titles or slogans; or mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering or coloring.
  • If a graphic is attached to a “useful article,” the artistic elements of the article receive copyright protection, but the utilitarian aspects may not.  For example, if you place your graphic on a standard t-shirt, the graphic elements can be copyrighted but the t-shirt cannot. 

When Does Copyright Protection Begin?

Your graphic is copyrighted as a pictorial, graphic or sculptural work soon as it is created and fixed in a tangible object.  You do not need to register your copyright with the copyright office or attach a copyright notice to receive protection.  Copyright protection lasts for the artist’s lifetime plus an additional 70 years.

Rights Protected by Copyright

A copyright is actually a group of rights – the right to make copies, the right to sell or distribute copies, the right to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work, and the right to publicly display the work.

Who Owns The Copyright to A Graphic?

In general, the person who created a graphic owns its copyright, but in some instances, someone else may own the copyright.  

Works Made for Hire. If you create a graphic for your employer as part of your regular job, your employer owns the copyright. If you were hired on a project basis to create a graphic for someone – for example, if you were hired to create a logo for a website– you own the copyright to the graphic unless you signed a work for hire agreement or an agreement transferring the copyright. 
Transfers of Copyright.  A copyright owner can transfer any or all of the rights that make up a copyright to someone else.  Transfers of exclusive rights must be made in writing. Nonexclusive rights can be transferred orally.

Types of Graphics that Can Be Copyrighted

Copyrightability of graphics depends greatly on the amount of creativity involved and the extent to which a graphic includes elements that can’t be copyrighted, such as typography and color variations.  The following are copyrightable, at least in some instances:

  • Illustrations
  • Logos can be copyrighted if they contain the required amount of creative expression.  For example, a logo consisting of an original illustration of a fish would be copyrightable; a logo that consisted of a red letter A in a particular typeface would probably not be copyrightable.
  • A layout design is not copyrightable, but a work encompassing layout design, such as a catalog, may sometimes be copyrightable as a compilation of photographs, artwork and text.
  • The artistic elements of fonts and typefaces cannot be copyrighted, but the software used for fonts may be copyrightable.
  • Fabric, floor and wall covering designs
  • Decals and stickers
  • Posters
  • Graphics applied to clothing and other useful articles

Why Should You Register a Copyright?

There are several advantages to registering your graphic with the U.S. Copyright Office:

  • Registration creates a record of your copyright ownership.
  • You cannot sue someone for copyright infringement unless you have registered your copyright. 
  • If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before an infringement occurs, statutory damages and legal fees are available in a copyright infringement lawsuit.  This means that if you win, you can recover money without having to meet the difficult burden of proving your financial loss or the infringer’s profits. 

Registration Procedures and Deposit Requirements

The U.S. Copyright Office requires three things to register a copyright:

  • A completed application form.  This may be submitted electronically or by mailing a paper application.  Online applications have faster processing times and lower fees.
  • A separate filing fee for online applications and paper applications.
  • A copy or copies of your work.  These will not be returned to you. The copyright office website has details about the number and type of copies you must submit and the methods for submitting them.

LegalZoom will help you copyright your creative work. Get started by answering questions about your work and we'll use your answers to assemble and file the paperwork with the Copyright Office.