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What you need to Know about Art Copyright Issues

What you need to Know about Art Copyright Issues



One subject I get asked a lot about is Copyright and what is covered under New Zealand Law in regards to the visual arts as in paintings or sculpture.

Basically copyright is a set of exclusive property rights given to the artist in relation to their creations/artworks.

To have copyright protection, the artwork must be ‘original’ in the sense that it originates from the artist and is not copied from another person’s work.

Copyright law is found in the Copyright Act 1994. You can read more about the Copyright Act at www.legislation.govt.nz

You don’t have to apply for copyright as you would for a trademark as copyright protection applies automatically to original works. You also don’t need to put a copyright notice on your work, publish it, or do anything else for your art work to be protected.

An artwork is protected from the time it is first recorded, either in writing or in some way. It’s always a good idea to take photos of your work in progress and keep dated records of it especially when completed.


Another common question is what the difference between a trademark and a copyright is. Well a trademark is for any sign which can distinguish the goods and services of one business from another. It can be a word, logo, slogan, and even a shape or sound, which means that it needs to be really specific, i.e. I have purchased the registered trademark for Boozehag ® for the next 10 years, while my copyright covers the ideas and images of my Boozehag artworks; there are numerous different images of this character and it would be a little over the top (and expensive.) to be buying trademarks for all of them.

So copyright is automatic and trademarks you need to apply for. It’s a long process and can cost a lot of money, so you need to be sure that it is necessary.


So when is an artwork not protected by copyright?

Copyright protects the expression of ideas or information − not the ideas or information such as a commissioned artwork. This means the person commissioning and paying for the artwork is the first owner of its copyright, as opposed to the artist/creator, unless a contract between the artist and commissioner is written up, agreed on and then signed by both parties to say that the artist will retain the copyright. This rule however is currently under review.


How long does a copyright last for an artwork?

Where artwork is concerned, copyright continues for 50 years after the end of the calendar year in which the artist died. For example Vincent van Gogh died in 1890, so being over 100 years ago, his work can be reproduced as it is no longer covered by copyright.


What are copyright owners’ rights?

Copyright owners have certain exclusive rights over their material. Anyone who wants to use someone else’s copyright in any of these ways, generally needs to gain you’re your permission. You can sign over the rights to your work to another individual however this isn’t always recommended.

As with any legal issues, there will always be grey areas and you should always get professional advice if unsure or you have a situation that needs acting upon.

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Posted: Monday 4 January 2010


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