Copyright 101 for Artists


On Nov. 12, an attorney from the U.S. Copyright Office will participate in a free, one-hour telephone call to answer questions regarding the copyright process. The call will address the procedure for submitting a copyright as well as what it means and does for an artist from a legal standpoint, essentially “Copyright 101 for Artists.”

The call was organized by Tara Reed, owner and operator of the blog and websites Ask About Art Licensing and Art Licensing Info. She holds bi-monthly “Ask Calls,” where listeners can call in for free and learn about issues related to art licensing. Reed is particularly pleased to have an attorney from the U.S. Copyright Office answering questions on the Nov. 12 call, stating that she believes the copyright lawyer will be able to “sort out a lot of misconceptions” and “artists will be better educated on the subject.” She has also noted that there are many different opinions and a great deal of confusion surrounding how to protect one’s work from being used for profit without permission but appears hopeful that this call will aid artists in clarifying how to protect their work.

While Reed’s focus is on art created by artists and licensed for use on products, any artist from a songwriter to a novelist is likely to benefit from learning the basics of copyright protection. One famous cautionary tale is that of George Romero, the co-writer and director the 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead. One of the original working titles was Night of the Flesh Eaters but when the title was changed, someone forgot to put the copyright symbol (the tiny letter “c” in a circle) on the work. The law has since changed but at that time, if a work did not have the copyright symbol, it was automatically entered into the public domain. As a result, Romero made virtually no money from the film, while the company that made the mistake, the distributor, raked in over $30 million. Luckily for Romero, the film was so successful that he was able to make many more movies, copyright protected, and earn a great deal of money. Still, others earned a great deal of money as well by profiting from Night of the Living Dead being in the public domain.

There are cautionary tales on the other side of the coin as well. Maire Loughran, who owns an arts and crafts business and advises other business owners, has told the story of a client who used various public domain photos to create and sell calendars and postcards. However, many of the photos contained images of individuals who did not authorize the use of their likeness. One of these individuals sued Loughran’s client for damages, resulting in a loss of money and time. So, even though the photos were in the public domain, there were still legal issues that related to their use. Loughran’s client could have been spared money and time had they consulted an attorney and addressed the intellectual property issues prior to going forward with their business plan. 

The Nov. 12  Art Licensing Info Ask Call will answer previously submitted questions from artists about the copyright process. However, anyone can call in and listen to the live audio when the call starts at 2PM EST on Nov. 12. Registration is free and listeners can register on the Ask About Art Licensing website.

By Jennifer Fernicola Ronay


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