The Art of Copyrights: What You Need to Know About Your Legal Rights and the Art You Create

The Art of Copyrights: What You Need to Know About Your Legal Rights and the Art You Create

Apr 01, 2013

On vacation, you browse through a local art gallery and purchase a small painting as a memento of your trip. You hang the painting in your home, and find that you just love the painting and the ambience that it evokes. You decide that you would like to have note cards made of the painting – what a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends while sharing your love of the painting. And your friends respond about the vibrancy of the artwork, asking if you could sell them some of the notecards for their own use.

No problems, right?

Well, there are actually some concerns and so we need to talk about copyrights.

With the Art and Art History Department, ORPC was fortunate to once again have the opportunity to co-host Drs. Peter and Catherine McGovern, Senior Intellectual Property Teaching Fellows at the UNH School of Law and experts on copyright, entertainment, and art and music law. The McGoverns engaged a wonderful audience with information for creators and consumers of art during a seminar held on March 7, 2013 about “The Art of Copyrights: What you need to know about your legal rights and the art you create”.

Catherine McGovern started off the session with a reminder of the basis for this conversation. Reading from an obviously much-loved copy of the United States Constitution: 

The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

(United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8)

Following a discussion on some copyright basics highlighted with examples from the art world, Peter McGovern continued the conversation about various copyright elements that both an artist and an art procurer should be savvy about, whether an artist is consigning their work to a gallery, a museum or gallery owner is receiving a work of art, or a consumer is purchasing a work for personal enjoyment. He also provided us with an outline of contractual issues that should be addressed in artist-dealer contracts.

The session was entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking, a perfect combination for an invested audience on a snowy day and for a session that we hope will be shared again and again.

And for the scenario above?

First some additional information on copyrights:

The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives a copyright owner the exclusive right to do, and to authorize others to do, the following:

  • Reproduce the work
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership
  • Perform the work publicly
  • Display the work publicly

So, the artist is the copyright holder of the painting that they created. And while you become the owner of the painting after purchase, you do not receive any of the copyrights associated with the painting unless explicitly transferred from the copyright holder (the artist). Consequently, you do not have the copyright allowing you to prepare derivative works, including making note cards of a much enjoyed painting.

There are a number of helpful resources about copyrights that we would be glad to share, as well as a copy of the issues described by Dr. McGovern for artist-dealer contracts. Please contact me ( if you have copyright questions or issues or would like a list of helpful copyright resources.

Photo Credit: © Christopher Gunn, Photo Art by Pat McDonald, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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