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Copyright laws are a set of defined rights given to artists by the government.  Copyright turns everything an artist makes, as they make it, into a protected form of property assuming what is being made is original to the artist. Copyrights protect a specific expression of an idea or concept but copyright does not protect ideas.

Copyright law protects artists from copying. That seems pretty obvious. But it’s much more than that. Copyright is made up of a group or a bundle of separate powerful exclusive rights. In U.S. law they are:

  • Reproduce the artwork.

    Only the copyright owner can allow someone to copy the artwork, whether physically or digitally.

  • Distribute the artwork.

    Only the copyright owner can distribute copies of the work, whether physical or digital.

  • Publicly display or perform the artwork.

    Only the copyright owner can decide whether to display the artwork or to make it publicly accessible on the Internet.

  • Alter the artwork.

    Only the copyright owner can permit or make changes to the original artwork.

  • Make derivate artwork.

    Only the copyright owner can permit or make additional artwork based on the original or use the artwork in another artwork.

Artist Creditkozispoon

Copyrights are also limited in a number of ways. The limits represent a balance between protecting the work that artists make so they can make a living and the interests of other people and groups who want access to the work or in some cases want to use it without needing permission from the copyright owner. This balance is necessary because copyrights protect cultural expression. Once the expression takes place it becomes part of a greater conversation that was going on before it arrived. Here are some of the limits on copyright:

  • Transfers.

    When an artist sells a copyright or one of the exclusive rights under copyright, the artist no longer has those rights. The buyer does. But if an artist sells an artwork, physically or digitally, the artist keeps the copyright unless there is a contrary agreement. So, pay attention to how you sell things — or how you buy them.

  • Limited duration.

    Copyrighted material must eventually enter the public domain — which means it is no longer protected and then free for use by anyone. For most countries, a person’s copyright lasts their entire life plus an additional 50-70 years. Artwork “created” by a corporation, like movies and comics, can last anywhere from 50 to over 100 years. Examples of public domain works include Sherlock Holmes, some of James Bond, most old fairy tales, all of the great, famous artworks older than essentially 1900.

  • Expression not ideas.

    Copyright protection only covers the expression of an idea — the way it is presented in a drawing, painting or story — not the idea itself even if the idea is really new and original. Anyone is free to draw in his or her own way a cat driving a car on Mars, even if they saw the idea in another drawing, but the artist can rely on copyright to prevent someone from making a copy of his or her specific version of that idea in his or her artwork. Another example of this: characters are just ideas unless they have full backstories and a pretty rich set of original attributes. But a drawing of a character can be protected in the form of that drawing.

  • Originality.

    Obvious forms of expression are not original to the author so they are not protected by copyright. An original drawing of a beautiful mountain is protected by copyright as a whole but the fact that the sky is a particular blue and has clouds and that there is grass in a meadow in the foreground — none of these by themselves are part of the copyright owned by that artist.

  • Fair use.

    Fair use is the idea built into the copyright laws that in some cases even if the copyright belongs exclusively to the artist, other people should be able to refer to it and in some situations use it as long as the second use is “fair.” What behavior is fair is very different depending on the person making that evaluation. It is not surprising then that “fair use” causes lots of arguments and confusion. Not every country allows fair use and each country’s laws are different. In the majority of countries copying is permitted when used for some teaching activities, criticism or for news reporting. Some countries interpret criticism broadly to permit parody and even satire. In many countries a second artist can use a small part of a copyrighted work without permission if it doesn’t hurt the value of the original. A few countries, like the U.S. and Britain, take an even more expansive approach: if the new work “transforms” the original’s meaning, aesthetic or purpose, it may be fair use even if the whole work is used.

  • Specific Limitations.

    Laws are political and some companies, organizations and interest groups have specific rights to use copyrighted works without asking permission or under special rules. For example, most websites can store and display a copyrighted work placed by another user on the website without permission — even though it’s a display or copy — but then have to take it down if the copyright owner objects. There are special rules that permit the blind to make copies of books in Braille. In the U.S. museums can display an artwork without permission from the copyright owner if the museum owns the works or if the person it borrows the artwork from owns the copy.

Artist Creditkozispoon

Copyright does not only cover artistic creations, like visual art, books, photos, music and movies. It can cover all sorts of expressive activity, like emails, status updates, and texts. As long as the communication shows a certain level of creativity or originality and it is preserved in a copy, it is copyrightable. Some copyright laws apply to every kind of copyrighted work and some are specific to music or visual art, or sound recordings.

The law is complicated. In the U.S. the copyright law in paperback form is about 200 pages long. There are major international treaties between most countries covering copyright. The EU has it own directive on copyright protection for member states. With only a handful of exceptions, every country in the world has a separate and complex copyright law.

If you need to know the answer to a copyright question, particularly before conducting a business transaction, you should strongly consider consulting a lawyer familiar with copyright law. Most lawyers are not very familiar with complex copyright law questions so you should find a specialist.

Artist Creditkozispoon

It is also important not to confuse copyright as being about the rights of an artist.  Copyright is a set of laws designed to protect creative works and the people who own them. It starts with the artist because the copyright first belongs to the author of the work as it is being made. But then the work and the copyright can be sold or licensed; then someone who is not the artist is in control. This is a powerful concept. Record companies, not music artists, are the ones who sued people who downloaded songs without their permission. Publishers and film companies buy copyrights and then they decide what to charge people, whether to make a movie or sell the book — not the artists.

When an artist sells or licenses a copyright interest he or she is transferring important legal protections as well as rights in the artwork. It is one important reason that art has value to a buyer and to a seller.

Someone or a company that violates a copyright is called an “infringer.” Copyrights deliver very significant enforcement tools for the owners. You can sue for damages caused by a copyright infringement — what the owner lost because of the infringement. In some countries you also can recover the profits made by the infringer. You can ask for a court order forcing the infringer to stop distribution or copying of the work. You can also, under U.S. law and similar provisions in other countries, request and require a website to remove a copyrighted work or an infringing work if you are the copyright owner.

DeviantArt has a specific Copyright Policy, which includes instructions for copyright owners who want to issue a request to have some one else’s work removed because it infringes their works. This form of notice is called a DMCA Takedown Notice and is further explained in the Copyright Policy.

If you would like information on how and when to register a copyright in the United States, the Copyright office has a good series of information booklets.

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