Artwork Ownership Rights...   Who Really Owns Your Art?

In this post we will address Custom Art Work for Printing, be it Business Cards, T-Shirts or whatever.

Many consumers believe that because they were billed an art fee for setting up a design or logo, they bought the design and it's theirs to have and use freely, when in actuality it's not that simple.  The General Rule is simply - "He who drew it owns it!" unless other arrangements have been made in writing.

If no agreement is made, ownership always lies with the artworks creator or author.

For the Most Part The Copyright Act of 1976 (USC Title 17) protects artists and the things they draw with some exceptions.

Such As Work For Hire, which basically can be summed up to - if you work for Jimmy as an artist and he pays you a salary or hourly rate, Jimmy Owns what the Artist Draws.  The perfect example is Artists who work for Disney Studios do not own the things they draw while on the clock and in some rare cases even when they are not on the clock.... 

In the case of a business owner who commissions an artist or design firm to draw a logo or art piece for them, rates and terms are usually worked out well in advance and the artist or design firm includes Ownership Rights into the sale whereas the buyer gets to assume all right and title to the created artwork.   If no agreement is ever made as to the transfer of copyright, the ownership always lies with the artworks creator.  A fine example is when you buy a painting from an artist.  While you surely hope the paintings value will increase, you are not buying the copyrights to the artwork, simply the artwork itself.  You can't start mass producing copies as you see fit selling them on Ebay. ( But the Artist Can! )

In our print shop we sometimes see these misunderstandings about artwork ownership first hand and more often than not, clients are disheartened to learn they do not own their logos.

Recently we had a client come to us for custom printed t-shirts and when he was asked about supplying his logo, he stated all he had was his logo on his business card.  We asked him if he had good camera copy or digital files of his logo he said he'd have to get it from the guy who did his cards.  A few days later he returned upset and told us that his other printer wanted $300 for the logo design and wanted to know how much we would charge to redraw his design.  That's when we had to deliver the bad news.  We could not legally redraw the logo and give it to him, because he really didn't own the art and we could be liable for any possible damages.  We informed him the best we could do would be redesign a whole new logo for him and it would cost roughly the same amount the other guy wanted for the original logo.  Our client thought that because he paid a $35 art fee he owned the logo to use as he deemed fit and just couldn't understand why he paid $35 in the first place.

I explained to him that what he was actually paying for was "design time" which is not the same thing as buying art rights.  Design Companies pay artists an hourly wage.  When their designers spend time to put together an image such as t-shirt design or business card layout the hourly wage is passed onto the client for the 'design time' and that's what he actually paid for.  While still a bit upset he did comprehend what we were telling him and chose to purchase the original artwork and it's copyrights because he liked what he had and it was already done as opposed to going back to the start with redesign.  Even though we didn't get a sale, it was the right call.  Not to mention he now had premo art files to print t-shirts, signs or anything else he needed.

Mentionable Note - As co owner of a design firm, I feel the need to point out that designs made with clip art, are not copyrightable.  The people who make the clipart or fonts, own their designs, they are just selling to you the rights to use them, not ownership.

We see a lot of logos made with clip art, and while yes, clipart design is cheap, it's just that, cheap and there is pretty much no image protection available. Anyone can use your design or make one up just like it.  Plumbers and Welders are notorious for clipart.  I know of 3 welding companies that all use the same clipart and there's no degree of image separation.  They all look pretty much the same even thought they are not the same company.  It can be argued that if one of these companies does really bad work the other two companies could suffer from the misconceptions that all the logos are alike so they must all be the same company...  A good logo design is literally the face of a Business or Organization and it should really be as unique as the business itself.

So in closing, who really owns your artwork or logo design?  In short, if you have a master disk with all your art files on it, there's a good chance you do.  If you have a written transfer of copyright then it's almost Guaranteed you own your artwork.  

BUT...  if you don't have anything in writing and no master files to speak of, I'd put money down that the author or creator of the image in question still owns the intellectual rights.  To be sure though, you would need to consult a copyright attorney or perhaps the designer or design firm.  Hopefully this article will shed some light on any basic artwork ownership questions you may have and if you have any questions, please feel free to drop me an e-mail.


Published by Steve Farrow July 1st 2012
Steve is Co-Owner of Crazy Native Graphic Arts, Inc. - Douglasville, Georgia.  A Full Service Graphics Company Specializing in Custom Printed T-Shirts, Signs, Logos and Graphic Design.  Other Services Include Promotion Product Sourcing, Eco-Friendly Tye Dyes and Apparel, Fulfillment Programs as well as Pre Printed Apparel Lines.  For More Information please visit
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