Industry Insights: How Artists Can Protect Their Work

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By Alexandra McKinney
| Intellectual Property

This post is part of our "Industry Insights" series, where our Yale Law School intern, Alexandra McKinney, discusses issues that are important to the small businesses she has interviewed in Connecticut. Today's post focuses on the steps an artist can take to make sure their work isn't reproduced without permission.

paint-artist

For an artist, there is nothing more infuriating than seeing a work you spent hours, days, or months perfecting reprinted, reproduced, or even just posted online without permission. Even if not passed-off as originals, unauthorized reproductions cause major problems, especially for artists whose styles and images are not instantly recognizable.

Often, there is no malice involved. Rather, the person making or disseminating the unauthorized reproduction simply doesn’t understand that reproduction rights lie with the artist and that regardless of who owns the original artwork, reproduction rights must be obtained from the artist directly.

So, as an artist, how can you prevent unauthorized reproductions, or at the very least, minimize the consequences after they occur?

Preventive Measures: Purchase Agreements

Be clear with all your buyers up front. A purchase agreement can explicitly spell out whether the buyer has reproduction rights and what the limits of those rights are. This serves to educate the buyer about their rights, so they don’t inadvertently reproduce your work. It also increases the likelihood that a buyer will contact you for permission to reproduce a work rather than risk a lawsuit.

If you are selling a piece through a gallery, the gallery may have its own purchase agreement they use with buyers. You can ask the gallery to include limits on reproduction in their agreement for your pieces or you can provide them with your own draft of an agreement. Even if you’re selling privately, you can work with a lawyer once to craft a purchase agreement that you can use for each sale. Hiring a lawyer upfront to draft an agreement is an investment in your future peace of mind, and it helps avoid costly lawsuits down the road.

Your Piece Was Reproduced! What Comes Next?

The first step is the most obvious. Contact the buyer (or other perpetrator), and remind or educate them that only you have rights to reproduce your work. Before your conversation, decide upon your preferred outcome. Do you want them to remove the work? Add your name to credit you? Send you royalties? If you can resolve the situation amicably yourself, that is obviously best for all parties involved.

If you cannot come to an agreement, you can benefit from the help of a lawyer. A lawyer can help you figure out if your rights have, in fact, been violated, since these issues can be complicated. If you discover your rights have been violated, a straightforward cease and desist letter, drafted by a lawyer, often convinces a buyer to stop their conduct without great expense. In most cases, it wouldn’t take more than an hour or two of a lawyer’s time.

In the unfortunate event that the situation escalates further, a lawyer can also provide valuable negotiation services to bring about a favorable agreement and avoid litigation.

Key takeaway: a few simple and inexpensive steps are often enough to protect your rights.

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