Can I sell my copyright?

Copyright can only be ‘assigned’ (sold or given away) by the execution of a written document signed by the copyright owner.

It is not advisable, however, to assign or otherwise dispose of your copyright over your works. This is for three reasons:

  1. Your statutory moral rights (to prevent the work being physically altered in some derogatory way, or when reproduced) could not be enforced by you against the new copyright owner.
  2. It is impossible for anyone to foresee how economically successful reproductions and merchandising of the work might be during your lifetime plus 70 years after your death (the length of copyright), and therefore how much income you might lose over that period.
  3. It is similarly impossible to put a fair and reasonable price on that impossibly foreseeable potential loss.

Instead, you should consider granting a copyright licence, for a limited period of time, for specified forms of reproduction and merchandising, and in limited countries throughout the world; and for a specified flat fee or royalty, or both. In this way, you keep the copyright, and control over the merchandising, and still generate income, with the client also achieving their commercial aims.

If you license your artwork, it means you have given an individual or company permission to use your images in a certain way, on a certain type of product, for a certain period of time, and with certain restrictions on usage.  Some agreements are for full reproduction rights (including copyright) in perpetuity, but most are for limited amounts of time and list the specific purposes that your art can be used for.  In order to know what you are signing, we have prepared this information as a guide on what your agreement should contain as a minimum. See our Licensing FAQ.

By rights, any reproduction of your work should attract a fee payable to you by whoever is reproducing the work – this includes art gallery catalogues. Many galleries will not even know that they should be paying their artists to reproduce their work (or may neglect to tell them). There is no fixed fee, and individual artists should negotiate this separately with galleries on an individual basis. In reality, of course, many galleries do not have the money to produce a cataligue and pay for reproduction rights – you might want to consider waiving these rights for the benefit of getting a catalogue of your show.

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.