No Monkeying Around: How to Copyright Artwork

Copyright Monkey Business

monkey selfie David Slater

(David J. Slater)

In the past week a monkey’s self-portrait has brought media attention to photography copyright. British photographer David Slater visited an Indonesian forest in 2011 and set up his photography equipment to capture the wildlife. He walked away for a few minutes, and during that time some black crested macaques grabbed his camera and began taking pictures, including the now-famous selfie pictured here.

The question is, who owns the copyright on the photo? Slater claims that he is the rightful copyright owner and should be paid for use of the photo. He says he set up the photography equipment, and the monkey acted as his “assistant” for the shoot. Wikimedia, however, claims that the monkey took the photo and should be the copyright owner, but animals cannot own a copyright, so the image is in the public domain. Wikimedia offers free downloads of the photo, and Slater claims that the free download has cost him untold amounts of money. My sympathy is certainly with the photographer, but things haven’t gone his way so far.

What is a Copyright

So, what is a copyright? Glad you asked! As creator of your artwork, you have certain inherent rights over your work and can control how each one of your works is used, until you sell your rights to someone else. The legal term for these rights is called copyright. Technically, any original artwork you produce is automatically copyrighted as soon as you put it in tangible form.

To be automatically copyrighted, your artwork must fall within these guidelines:

•    It must be your original creation. It cannot be a copy of somebody else’s work.
•    It must be “pictorial, graphic, or sculptural.”
Utilitarian objects, such as lamps or toasters, are not covered, although you can copyright an illustration featured on a lamp or toaster.
•    It must be fixed in “any tangible medium, now known or later developed.” Your work, or at least a representation of a planned work, must be created in or on a medium you can see or touch, such as paper, canvas, clay, a sketch pad, or even a website. It can’t just be an idea in your head. An idea cannot be copyrighted.

How to Copyright Artwork

One of the best ways you can protect your copyright is to register it with the United States Copyright Office. The benefits of registering are basically to give you additional clout in case an infringement occurs and you decide to take the offender to court. Without a copyright registration, it probably wouldn’t be economically feasible to file suit, because you’d be entitled to only your damages and the infringer’s profits, which might not equal the cost of litigating the case. If the works are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, it will be easier to prove your case and get reimbursed for your court costs.

To learn more about how to copyright artwork, how to protect your copyright and how to divide and sell copyright terms, read our article “Copyright Basics.” You can also find this information in the 2014 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.

Keep creating and good luck!


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