Artist Copyright FAQ’s

Hi friends! Happy Monday! Today I wanted to share a few things about copyright, as many of you have been asking me about certain things regarding what we as artists can do, what we can’t do, and where things fall on the sometimes confusing spectrum of copyright issues.  So I’ve compiled some common questions into this post to hopefully help you out if you’re new to selling your art and are wondering what’s what in the world of copyright.

copyright questions for artists

Do I Have A Copyright?

This is the most important first question, and that is: do I own the rights to my work? The simple answer is yes! Any intellectual creation is by default the copyright of the creator.  This means that if you draw a picture, that image is yours and you own the rights to use it however you want.

What If I Sell My Art?

This is the next logical question.  If you sell your original drawing, what happens? Well, you may have sold the image, but the rights to the image stay with you.  This means that if someone buys your original drawing, they simply own the drawing.  They don’t own the actual rights to the image.  So this means that they cannot use your image to create prints and then sell those prints.  They own the artwork they purchased, that’s it. (They can choose to sell their drawing to someone else like any other possession, but they cannot create additional products using that image to sell. Do you see the difference?)

That right stays with you.  So you can sell your original drawing, and still continue to sell prints of it, or stickers,mugs, whatever you’ve designed using your image.

Whenever I sell an original artwork, I include a certificate that states that the item the buyer has is in fact the original artwork and not a print or reproduction. I also include a statement that says that the purchase of the original art does not transfer the rights to the image, and all copyrights remain with the artist.

What if I License My Art?

If you’ve licensed your art, for example, selling a few designs to someone who creates notepads and has paid you to use your designs on a new set of notepads, you still remain the owner of the rights to your designs.  The only exception to this is if you’ve actually signed the rights of the image over to the other party, or if you enter into an exclusivity agreement.  An example of an exclusivity agreement would be agreeing that you will not make any prints or other products with your designs for a certain amount of time to allow the creator of the notepads to have exclusive designs by you for a period of time.

If you decide to sell the entire rights of the image to the other party, this is the only situation in which you cannot make any other products with your image, as the other party has the rights to do whatever they want with your image.  Be very careful when making deals with companies for your work.  I personally never sign over the rights to any of my images.  I do, however, enter into periods of exclusivity, as I believe it’s more of a win-win situation for anyone who wants to have exclusive prints/products from you.

Can I Make a Painting From a Photo?

This is a really common question. Using a reference image is a great way to make a painting, but you have to be careful about the picture you use.  Like artists, photographers are entitled to their own copyrights over their images.  So you can’t just find a picture on the internet and paint it exactly as you see it.  That picture belongs to someone, and they may not want it to be used in creating other artworks.

A general rule is that you need to have permission from the original photographer to use the image.  This could be having direct contact with the photographer, or it could mean using photos that have a license attatched to them.

Photos with a Creative Commons license are allowed to be used as reference materials within other creative works, as long at the untouched photo itself is not redistrubuted.  Sometimes you have to pay to use images like this, like those on popular royalty-free websites like Shutterstock.

But other times they are free! I personally love the website MorgueFile, which provides images that can be used to create other intellectual materials, so long as the original image is not resold. It’s free, and there’s a pretty good selection on there.

There are other sites like this on the web, just do a search for free royalty free images, and see what you can find.  Read the fine print for each photo, however, as some photographers require attribution, in which you have to list them as your reference source and link back to their profile/website. Others require no attribution, it’s entirely an individual situation.

What if I Use Scrapbook Paper/Stamps/Clip Art in my Artworks?

Again, this is purely a case by case basis.  Check out the policies of the designer you’re buying the items from.  Many will have some sort of usage guidelines or terms of use you can check.  Some designers will explicitly say their items are to only be used for personal reasons (even if you’ve purchased them) while others will have an Angel Policy that usually states something along the lines that you can use their stamps/clip art to create handmade items that you can then sell, as long as you are not a large manufacturer and are mass-producing them, or that you do not sell the clipart/stamp/whatever on its own.

Some sellers that state their items are for personal use only will have an upgrade option to purchase a commercial license to their work, which will then allow you to use it to create items you intend on selling.

Can I Sell My Fanart?

This question is a can of worms. This is a huge grey area. Well, not really a grey area, but more like a “it’s illegal but people do it anyway” kind of area. The general rule is that you cannot recreate the intellectual property of others without their permission, and most characters are the intellectual property of the studio/artist/company that created the movie/video game/etc. that the character is from. So, no, without the permission of the company/artist, selling fanart isn’t allowed.

So anyone selling keychains, posters, t-shirts, etc. of Pokemon, Batman, Disney Princesses, and the like are technically illegal.  The loophole, if you want to call it that, is that SO MANY people do it, the chances of you getting caught are pretty minimal.  But just be aware they if you want to go this route, it is a risk. Just make sure you’re making an informed decision. In addition, many fine art/crafting shows will state in their entry rules that all items you bring to sell must be original. (This is obviously different for comic/anime conventions, who are much more open to it, but even then many of them will have a rule like at least 30% of your art must be original).

I personally choose to not sell fanart, as it’s just a big grey area I don’t want to be in.

Can I Sell a Painting I Made With Your “Paint With Me” Projects?

This is a question I’m starting to be asked more and more, and I think it may be in part to this post I wrote about a recent copyright issue I had with a company. So I’m going to answer it here.

In short, YES! I designed my “Paint With Me” projects to be free painting lessons that anyone can do.  My whole goal with them is to show you that you can create a painting from start to finish regardless of your skill or confidence level.  You are the one creating the painting, and I totally don’t mind if you decide to sell your painting after, make prints of it, or create any other products from it that you want to sell.

My problem arises with the act of teaching HOW to paint the painting.  What I’m selling with the Paint With Me paintings is the creation process of how to paint that painting (and I’m selling it for $0).  So in order to infringe on my copyrights, you would have to be creating your own tutorial on how to paint that exact painting.  See the difference? You can sell the painting, you can’t sell how to CREATE the painting, because that’s what I’m “selling” in this case.


I hope this has helped answer any questions you have when it coes to what’s allowed and what’s not allowed in the art world.  Basically, just check for terms of use or license information on anything you’re planning on using in a work that you have the end goal of selling, even if it’s an item you’ve paid for, it doesn’t mean you have permission to use it in commercial works.  So be sure to double check to make sure that you’re all squeaky clean! It helps the whole art community if we use each other’s works fairly.

Leave me a comment below if this has helped you, and till next time, keep creating!

-Ashley <3

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  1. I am so over the moon that I found your YouTube channel and blog. Thanks so much for everything you ‘offer.’ I’ve just dipped into watercolors and your information has been beyond helpful 🙂

  2. Hi Ashley, great post on copyrights. I have a question for you: I keep posting my art work online on facebook pages and these pages can be viewed by all (“public” setting). Would signing the art worm with my initials and date alone work when it comes to me holding the rights for my art? This is not so much of an issue now but if I were to sell one of them some day, then i need to know how to hold the rights for it, the “official” way. Not sure if it’s a naive question, but would love to have your response 🙂 thanks!

    • Hello! Thanks for your comment, I’m glad this post was helpful! Signing your original works is always a good way to show original ownership, but really the rights are with you as soon as you put pencil to paper. Sharing scans/photos of the artwork online doesn’t lessen your rights to it. If it’s copyright infringement you’re worried about, however, that’s a different story. The fact that you own your images won’t stop someone from downloading your pictures and selling prints of them themselves if they want to. This is of course illegal, and if you catch someone doing this you can tell them to stop and they have to stop doing it. But usually by then you’re already feeling pretty bad about the whole thing…

      To prevent this, you could make sure your initials/signature is on the photos you share online, or adding a digital watermark to them, but the reality is that technology is so good now, if someone really wants to steal your art, then can find ways around the watermark, and ways to “erase” your signature, etc. So my advice is this: Never upload a high resolution image to the internet. If you want to share scans of your artwork, edit them in a photo editor so that they are a much small resolution (something around 600 or 700 pixels wide or so, keep it under 1000 pixels for sure). This allows someone who’s interested in your work to see the picture large enough on their screen to make out details, but if someone has the intent of downloading the image and printing it out, they’ll only be able to print an image around 3″ wide, and any larger than that the image will be super pixilated and grainy…no good for making decent sized prints or printing onto pillows/tshirts/etc.

      So the right to the image always remains with you, but to protect your rights, always make sure your images aren’t high resolution when you post them to Facebook/online. I hope that helps!

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