Copyright Law for Artists: What Does Copyright Law Protect?

Kiffanie StahleAs a creative entrepreneur, your designs are your most valuable asset. Because of the value that your designs hold, you should take full advantage of the laws whose primary function is to protect your designs.

Yep, you guessed it; we are going to talk about copyright law for artists.

I know that for some of you the idea of anything legal makes you want to run in the opposite direction. But as a smart, savvy entrepreneur, understanding the basics of copyright can make you more confident and earn you more money (isn't that your goal?).

So what does copyright law protect?

Copyright law protects "original works of authorship," which attorneys often shorten to "works." In non-legalese, copyright law for artists protects many of the things that you write, draw, photograph, sing, or make with your hands.

Notice I said "many"? The law is full of exceptions, so to make your life a little easier, we are going to talk about some of the things you can't protect, which will help shed light on what you can protect.

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Titles. The Copyright Office specifically states that titles, names, short phrases, and slogans do not receive copyright protection. Because of this, there can be hundreds of pieces called "tutu fun" and no artist can stop another from using that title for their piece.

Information. Another category that cannot receive protection under copyright law for artists is works that contain only commonly available information (think calendars, lists, or tables). But, the cute little illustration you draw on your calendar is protected. You just can't stop someone else from making a 7x5 grid representing the month, because that's commonly available information.

Ideas. Ideas are also not protected under the Copyright Act. That being said, how you carry out your idea is protected. For instance, you can't prevent another jewelry designer from making a necklace pendant out of bamboo cut in the shape of a feather. What you can prevent is another designer purchasing your pendant, tracing it,and then creating a pattern from that tracing to make an identical necklace.

Functional Items. The final area that trips up some makers is that copyright does not protect objects that have a primarily utilitarian function. Common examples of this are clothing and furniture. However, purely decorative elements of a functional item can gain copyright protection. For example, a designer creates a chair and hand-carves a geometric design on the back of the chair. The design of the chair itself does not get copyright protection (because its primary function is to sit on). But the geometric design on the back of the chair has no relation to its function as a chair and as such can be protected.

Now you have the basic tools to understand copyright law for artists, to determine if your latest creation is copyrightable. Not so difficult, right?

I'm a lawyer, so my insurance carrier likes me to use disclaimers. The information in this post is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide specific legal advice. I am not your attorney and this post is not a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your state.

Guest poster Kiffanie Stahle lives in San Francisco and is the founding partner of Stahle Law, where she provides copyright and trademark services to creatives of all kinds. She tries to make law a little less scary by giving her clients the tools they need to understand their legal rights and when to get assistance rather than forging ahead on their own. She loves to take photographs and occasionally will show them in public.

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Rachael Brooke

Hello Kiffanie,

Thanks for all the great information on copyright law. I'm a jewelry artist and have a few questions.

1) If you can stop another artist from selling work made by buying and tracing one of your own designs, can you also stop another artist from doing the same by printing/tracing your website images? I assume the trick is to prove another artist has purchased or printed your work with that intention, right?

2) I use a combination of pre-made design templates and my own design templates that I make from scraps of Lexan plexiglass. While I can't copyright a circle or other basic shapes, can I claim copyright to the designs I create myself?

3) I use old tea, candy and tobacco tins in my work. I have had people ask if I run into copyright issues by using material that has company names/logos on it. How do artists who repurpose materials with company names/logos on them make sure they're not infringing on copyright?

Rachael Brooke

Kiffanie Stahle

1) To prove copyright infringement in the U.S. there are two elements: that you have a valid copyright and that the other person copied your work. Often parties will not admit directly to copying, so a combination of having access to the original (i.e. by purchasing it) and the two items being "substantially similar" are used to prove that the other person copied your work.

2) If these are works reduced to a tangible form and are not functional, it is likely that they would have copyright protection. However, the strength of that copyright protection could vary depending on the complexity of the design.

3) Artists who re-purpose items need to consider both copyright and trademark laws to determine if their actions violate the company's rights.

I wish that I could provide more particular answers, but I can't provide legal advice specific to you in a general forum.


From the looks of the eCO page, my product doesn't seem to be copyrightable, but I am not sure. Say, as a hypothetical, I figured out a way to make bottle openers out of discarded hair brushes. Is there any protection for my idea? Is there a "value added" aspect I need to look into? I would really sleep better and feel better about aggressive marketing if I wasn't so worried about another maker just saying "I could do that".

Kiffanie Stahle

Jeff - There is never copyright protection in an idea, only in the actual execution. So continuing your hypothetical, you could never prevent someone else from taking hair brushes and turning them into bottle openers. The other issue that you run into with functional products (like a bottle opener) is that copyright does not protect these elements that are required for the item to function. Between these two things, I'm not sure that copyright law will do much to protect a product like this. I don't practice patent law, but it might provide a route for you to gain some protection over an item like a bottle opener from a hair brush.

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