Who Owns the Artwork?

What is Graphic Design?In addition to my book publishing background, I've also worked in the world of print advertising sales for many years. What these two industries have in common is that each business (whether it be a newspaper, magazine, phone directory, or publisher) creates artwork for its respective clients as part of its overall service offering. 

A company's artwork policy can vary: some believe that once you've paid for and published a creative, the copyright belongs to you, and you can reproduce it at your discretion as part of your own marketing campaign; others believe that any artwork they have created for you belongs to them and can only be reused with their permission at an additional charge. Having been on both sides of this coinas the service provider and the paying clientit is my opinion that the copyright for a creative belongs to the paying client, and all the high-resolution artwork should be returned to that client upon receipt of payment. I won't delve into any examples related to print advertising here, but I will discuss my experience with book publishing.

Each time I write a new book, I tie it into the preceding book(s) by including graphics of my past book cover(s) at the end of the story along with an updated author bio. I reproduce this promotional copy on my author website and printed flyers, as well. This helps me to sell my backlist along with my frontlist at signings and various other events.

On one particular occasion, I wanted to create a large poster with all my book covers included on it. I intended to use this as an eye-catching display at a craft sale. Great idea, right? Unfortunately, one of the book publishing companies I had published through would not release a high-resolution copy of my book cover to me. "We own it," they said. "It belongs to us."

It seems to me, this is a "nobody wins" sort of scenario. This company was not keeping my artwork with the intention of ever using it themselves. They were simply keeping the files to prevent someone else (me) from ever using them.

I founded PPG with the philosophy that self-publishers are not only entitled to 100% copyright ownership of their written words, but they are also entitled to 100% copyright ownership of their artwork. (After all, they are the ones paying for the production of their books.) Rather than storing their print-ready cover and interior files ourselves, we return everything to our self-publishers (working files, finished files, everything). This enables our clients to print extra copies of their books wherever they choose, and it allows them to produce marketing materials at their discretion. To me, this is an "everybody wins" sort of scenario because each time they display their book covers with one of our logos on it, it helps to promote them, the designer, and PPG. That's how it should be, wouldn't you agree?

Again, I'm open to hearing from my fellow writers and self-publishers on this one. What is your experience regarding artwork copyright? What's your opinion on this topic?
PPG is a Canadian book publisher dedicated to serving Canadian authors. Visit our book publishing website to learn how you can publish your book today. 


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  • 11/29/2009 10:26 AM ron davis wrote:
    ownership of artwork all depends on the agreement. for example, i can lease out an image of my visual art or photography to a client for a single purpose - they can promote the final agreed upon graphic result, but they dont own my art and can not use it beyond that agreement; this allows me to use that same piece of art for other ventures, such as bookcovers for other writers, posters, print ads, the web, etc.

    however, if they purchase the rights to that art then its their's to use however they see fit. i can take credit for it as the artist, but i no longer have say-so as to how it is used or marketed.

    this agreement exists everywhere: buying a new camry grants you ownership of that particular car, but not ownership in the brand - you cant make a camry commercial in the name of toyota (you could, but you'd be sued).

    even corporations must purchase the logos specifically designed for their companies - this prevents the designer of the coca-cola logo from altering it as the logo for anyone else; otherwise, i could sell the same logo to as many interested clients as possible.

    any art (painting, photography, literature) operates under this same principle.
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  • 11/29/2009 1:05 PM Kim S wrote:
    What about display ads the company has supplied their own logo and artwork for? Should they not be able to reproduce it in more than one publication, at their discretion, rather than having it recreated again and again by different people?
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  • 12/6/2009 9:48 AM Duncan Long wrote:
    How a book cover illustration may legally be used is determined by a contract. If there's not contract, then the artist has virtually unlimited power to dictate how the artwork can and can not be employed. For this reason, it is always wise to spell things out in a contract long before you need to use the artwork.

    If money changes hands and there's no contract, then the assumption is that the publisher has purchased only the right to display the artwork on the book cover (and only that edition of the book) and nothing else. The artist retains all other rights including poster rights, and any other use by the author or publisher might easily be seen as a copyright violation.

    Legitimate artists are happy to provide a contract so all the rights are spelled out ahead of time. If you're publishing a book, protect yourself with a contract!

    --Duncan Long
    Freelance illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, American Media, Fort Ross, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other publishers. See my book cover illustrations at: http://DuncanLong.com/art.html
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  • 12/8/2009 2:57 PM Dave Aldrich wrote:
    I agree, Kim. Before becoming a self-employed designer I worked for an ad agency/branding firm for many years. It was always the policy there as it is with me now, that the artwork belongs to the client who paid for the services. To me it's not only the fair way to work but a simpler way to work without having to mess with contracts and copyrights.

    And it's been my experience that clients/authors will come back to you with additional needs often times so there is future work to look forward to. I created a cover recently for an author in Wisconsin and she needed promotional materials (posters, mailers, bookmarks, business cards. I was happy to offer her my other design services.

    Question... If you hand over artwork files to your client, on a CD, is that taxable? I've worked in Massachusetts and in Rhode Island and it often seems to be a gray area with the IRS (the tax man), but they considered tangible items, such as artwork a on disk taxable. What's been your experience in Canada?
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  • 12/8/2009 3:13 PM Kim S wrote:
    Hi Dave,

    At PPG, our services are all marked taxable. But that's a great question. Can anyone else shed some light on this topic?

    Kim S.
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  • 12/8/2009 4:18 PM Charlie Self wrote:
    Your opinion doesn't matter. It's the law: unless the creative person assigns copyright, in writing, to the buyer, copyright remains with the person who did the writing and the art work.

    Work for hire contracts specifically state that the buyer owns the copyright, but, generally, a publisher does NOT own the copyright to the work unless a contract so states.

    Without a contract, then the writer/photographer/artist retains copyright. Whether that's fair or not is irrelevant.

    Now, if you're employed full-time by a company or another person, the rules change. I know little about those, and wish I knew less. IME, items produced then are always "works for hire" and owned by the employer or the employer's assigns.

    If you really want to have some fun, get hold of a good self-employed photographer and tell him you want copyright to all his raw files shot on your assignment. In most cases, you're lucky if the price only doubles.
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  • 12/9/2009 10:50 AM Bernie Nyman wrote:
    Under UK law,the copyright in artwork (even if the artwork is specifically commissioned) belongs to the artist, unless either (i) the artist is an employee and creates the artwork in the course of his or her employment, in which case the employer will own the artwork; or (ii) the copyright is assigned by the artist in a written document signed by the artist. The copyright can be assigned before it even comes into existence (before the artwork is created), in which case the assignee is the first owner of the copyright when the artwork is created. If the artwork already exists a publisher pays the artist for the right to use it, it obviously makes good sense for the parties to be very specific about the use to which the publisher can put the artwork. If they are not, then there will be an implied licence for the publisher to use the artwork, but the extent will only be such as the parties would necessarily have agreed must be part of the arrangement - which may be far less than the publisher alone would have wanted or expected.

    Bernie Nyman
    BM Nyman & Co
    Publishing Lawyers
    London, UK
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  • 12/9/2009 11:26 AM Joel Friedlander wrote:
    I've never believed in unloading a huge mass of files onto my clients at the end of a project, and the designs etc that never got used would be of dubious value anyway. What I do is create a set of the files that went to the printer for the interior and cover and send that to the client. I transfer complete ownership to the client, but only of the files and designs that are actually used in the final book. All the other preliminary or rejected designs remain my property, as the creator. I find this works well for both parties.

    And Charlie's comment is right on: opinion is of little consequence in rights licenses and transfers. You have to know the law, and you need to have a contract.
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  • 12/9/2009 12:26 PM Kim S wrote:
    At PPG, we have two contracts--one for the self-publisher and one for the artist--that states the copyright for all artwork belongs to the self-publisher. Our contracts states that all the artwork must be sent to the self-publisher upon publication. This enables them to reprint copies of their books where they desire (where they can get the best price based on the volume they are printing) and produce marketing materials at their discretion.
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  • 12/9/2009 3:05 PM Charlie Self wrote:
    That's the first I've heard that republishing requires a full copyright. This sort of thing should be worked out in advance, but I wouldn't provide full copyright to photos to anyone unless they're willing to pay at least triple the licensed use fee. Licensed use always includes the possibility of republishing a later edition using the same material. Or it has in the 45 books I've written, none of which were self-published.

    Since I'm not sure what PPG is, my comments may not be relevant.
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  • 12/9/2009 4:17 PM anonymous wrote:
    More valuable comments about artwork can be found by clicking on this link:

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  • 12/13/2009 11:27 AM Duncan Long wrote:
    I just discovered an article by a lawyer that really gets into the nitty gritty of who owns what with artwork purchased by a book or magazine. It's at:http://www.ivanhoffman.com/artist.html

    Freelance magazine and book cover illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, American Media, Fort Ross, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other publishers. See my book cover illustrations at: http://DuncanLong.com/art.html
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  • 12/17/2009 2:27 PM Ted Goff wrote:
    This discussion underscores the importance of good communication between the client and artist. In my experience, art is generally sold by usage, not by piece. The price differs depending on whether the art is to be used in a church flyer or a national ad campaign. If art is requested for use in a church flyer only, then
    it is unreasonable to expect to use the same art in a national ad campaign.

    Ted Goff
    Cartoons for Textbooks
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