How to copyright artwork

Registering the copyright for your work of art is a great way to protect your intellectual property rights. Find out how registration works, how it helps you, and more.

by Jane Haskins, Esq.
updated March 14, 2023 ·  3min read

Like anything else that can be copyrighted, artwork is protected by copyright when the art is affixed in a tangible form (such as a painting, sculpture, or drawing). You have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office if you want to be able to take infringers to court and be awarded damages.

Artwork is copyrightable if it meets the following criteria:

  • It must be your original work: it must originate with you and show some minimal amount of creativity.
  • It must be fixed in a tangible object, such as paper, a canvas, or a digital medium. It cannot merely be an idea for a work of art.

Artwork does not need to have artistic merit to receive copyright protection.

If artwork is contained in a “useful article,” the artistic elements of the article can receive copyright protection, but the utilitarian aspects may not. For example, if you design a lamp with a sculpture in its base, the sculpture can be copyrighted, but the utilitarian aspects of the lamp cannot.

If you buy a piece of artwork, you will own the art, but you will not own the copyright to it unless the artist has specifically transferred the copyright to you.

When does copyright protection begin?

You have a copyright in your artwork as soon as it has been created and fixed in a tangible object. It does not need to be registered with the copyright office or have a copyright notice attached to receive copyright protection. A copyright lasts for the life of the artist, plus 70 years after the artist’s death.

Rights conferred by copyright

The owner of the copyright in a piece of artwork has the exclusive right to make copies, to sell or distribute copies, to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted artwork, and to publicly display the artwork. 

Types of artwork that can be copyrighted

Many types of artwork are entitled to copyright protection, including:

  • Artwork that is applied to fabric, T-shirts, or other clothing
  • Decals and stickers
  • Cartoons and comic strips
  • Collages
  • Drawings, paintings, and murals
  • Greeting cards, postcards, and stationery
  • Jewelry designs
  • Patterns and kits for sewing, knitting, crochet, and needlework
  • Original prints and posters
  • Sculpture

Why should you register your copyright?

You don’t have to register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office to receive copyright protection. However, registration has several important advantages:

  • Registration establishes a record of your copyright ownership.
  • You must register before you can sue someone for copyright infringement. 
  • If you register your copyright within three months of publication or before an infringement occurs, you are entitled to statutory damages and your legal fees in a copyright infringement lawsuit. Statutory damages allow you to recover money without proving the monetary value of your loss or the infringer’s profits.
  • If you register your copyright, you can also register with the U.S. Customs Service to receive protection against imports of infringing copies.

Copyright registration procedures and deposit requirements

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

  • Either an online application or a paper application. Online applications have a lower filing fee and a faster processing time.
  • A separate filing fee for online applications and paper applications.
  • A copy or copies of your work. These will not be returned to you. In some instances, such as three-dimensional works, you must submit photographs or other identifying documents instead of submitting the artwork itself. The copyright office website has details about the number and type of copies you must submit for various types of artwork.
Make sure your work is protected START MY REGISTRATION
Jane Haskins, Esq.

About the Author

Jane Haskins, Esq.

Jane Haskins is a freelance writer who practiced law for 20 years. Jane has litigated a wide variety of business dispute… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.