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and how it applies in the United Kingdom

At some stage this topic is going to crop up – and you will need to have a notion about the current rules and laws.  

Read any art magazine over a period of a year and this topic will be aired – either in an article, or as a question and answer topic.

The original artist has the right of protection from people copying his idea and making money out of it.  

That is it in simple terms.  Different countries have slightly differing slants on the general International situation and these notes try to make sense of the UK law.

These notes were prepared in 2008 and the law has not materially changed ( as at January 2015).   

Copyright has been a matter for the courts since Albrecht Durer brought a case against an engraver in Italy in 1506 and has been argued over ever since.  

In the UK, the most recent bit of legislation was in 1988 – the Copyright Designs and Patents Act (CDPA). This was later amended in 1990.  

All artists steal, and have done so for centuries, and it has been the practice for centuries for students to learn by copying the works of established artists, so this muddies the waters quite a bit.   

WHAT ARE THE BASICS ?   In the UK copyright exists as soon as a work is made in one of seven ‘traditional’ forms ( painting, collage, sculpture, graphics, photography, architecture and wholly computer originated work.).

Copyright arises irrespective of the subject matter.  

There are no legal formalities , copyright just happens.  

It is sensible to mark the work in some way and a name or monogram, a date and the international copyright symbol (© ) as this gives notice to the world that the work is protected and should not be copied.  It doesn’t stop copying, but if you later go to law it is very helpful as a warning.  

Your name confirms you establish MORAL RIGHTS and the date confirms the year you completed and published the work

Copyright exists on a work for the life of the originator and then 70 years - though for works made after 1989 (this will relate to copyright on your work) there are different number of years for different media (Computer work for instance – life plus 50 years).

If someone buys an original picture and the picture carries a warning that copyright is reserved by the artist,

that means the buyer does not acquire copyright, and the artist is free to produce more copies of his work and sell them.

If the copyright warning is not there on a picture you wish to use as a source, it does not, however, mean you are free to copy.  

There is no fixed percentage of ‘variation’ from the original which makes a copy legal even

though there are stories circulating that maintain that if you change a picture by a certain

percentage you will be able to sell the image as your ‘original’.

The majority of the law on copyright is down to case law in the UK and that makes it difficult..

 It depends on what a judge thinks on the day the case comes to court

An author who works as an employed writer does not own the copyright – that vests with the employer.   However, since 1989 someone who commissions a work from an artist no longer acquires the copyright automatically with the picture – prior to that date they did.   

If you mark your picture ‘@ copyright reserved by the artist’ you put a buyer on notice that they cannot sell copies even though they own the original.  The right to sell copies of a picture you have bought may be negotiated with the artist.  This particularly applies to photographs where you may want to use someone else’s image to produce a painting.


In general terms there is nothing to prevent you from making a copy.

 What you must not do is sell it.       

You are allowed to copy a work :-

1/ for research and study

2/ for criticism or review provided the author of the work is credited in the publication

3/ for news reporting of current events

4/ for making a two dimensional copy of a 3 dimensional work sited in a public space or with public access

5/ for incidental inclusion in a film or TV programme

Effectively, no one will act to sue you for copying unless it is worth their while to do so, so your copy must have produced good profits to justify the action.  Companies like ‘Macdonalds’ however, will sue anyone who uses their logo – regardless.


Not if your source is original and subject to copyright.  If you take a photo of an item which is not subject to copyright, then no copyright exists and you would be able to use the image.  HOWEVER, Many photos these days ARE subject to copyright by the original photographer and the name in question is then given below the image in a newspaper or magazine, for instance

(or inside the covers of a book).  This can often be a commercial bureau, who handle rights for copying.   Beware of using  pictures from the Internet unless you KNOW they are freely available for you to work from (e.g. The image files on  Wetcanvas.com)

You are free to copy the ‘Old Masters’ as they have been (mostly) dead for over 70 years  - watch out for the likes of David Hockney, however ( He is still alive)

It is all a thorny topic,  Just beware of copying and if you do, acknowledge that your work is a copy in the title

USA Copyright Law applies to images posted by USA artists and the Laws there are different

You may need to check the position if you are in the USA, as the rules are more extensive and there are many areas where regulations differ from Europe.  The USA did have considerable debates a year or so back about requiring the registering of images for copyright, but as far as I can see that has not been followed through.  A good first reference (free) is the Wikipedia page here.

If you want to read up more about Copyright in the UK, then look at this site :


This is the official UK Government Copyright site.  

BEWARE of a load of commercial copyright info sites on the Internet search pages that attempt to sell you a commercial service. This is not necessary.

If you live elsewhere in the World then search your local area for information.

The rules in Europe and mostly governed by the EU regulations set in 1993 and later which are summarised in the Wikipedia article here.   EU law applies with variants throughout the EU states as each country adopts the law as it wishes.  

You may need to do some further searching in other areas of the World

This page last checked January 2015