Copyright in graphic design

Copyright in graphic design generates some doubts among professionals in the sector. Is there copyright in graphic design? How can I protect a visual work? What happens if I sell it to a client? All these questions and many others are answered in this article.

What does the Copyright Law say?

The first thing you should know is that the law does not distinguish between different types of authors (musicians, writers, graphic designers…). Therefore, as a visual author, you have rights by the mere fact of creating a work.

Now, which law will apply to you as a graphic designer? Copyright Laws, which mentions “original literary, artistic or scientific creations expressed by any means or support, tangible or intangible, currently known or to be invented in the future”. Original works refers to “sculptures and works of painting, drawing, engraving, lithography and graphic cartoons, comic strips or comics, as well as their essays or sketches and other plastic works, whether applied or not”. 

Therefore, as we have pointed out in bold in the previous paragraph, the copyright law in graphic design contemplates the creation of original artistic works and includes the different creations under the words “and other plastic works”.

What can be protected in graphic design?

Creating a graphic work implies a great creative and technical effort, so one of the concerns of designers is to protect such work. And the best way to do so is by registering the works.

Copyright registration makes it possible to register two-dimensional elements, such as drawings, colors and patterns of graphic works, and also three-dimensional elements, such as 3D works, which are very common in industrial design.

At the end of the article we tell you how to register your work with Safe Creative.

industrial design

Copyright and customer orders

What happens to the copyright of a design if I sell it to a client? This is one of the most confusing points, so we will try to address it as clearly as possible.

  • Copyrights, besides artistic works, cover commercial products, so they apply to any creation, such as logos, illustrations, etc.
  • If you create a work, it belongs to you, even if you sell it to a client. You can assign your rights for a period of time by signing a written assignment of rights agreement, but the work will always be yours.
  • You cannot waive all copyrights in all jurisdictions. Copyright is divided into moral rights, which are unwaivable and inalienable in European Continental Law, and economic rights, which regulate the economic exploitation of the work. You can assign the latter by signing a contract. To learn more about the types of copyrights that exist, read this other article.
  • It is important to differentiate between payment for the realization of a commission and payment for the assignment of rights (which will allow someone else to use the work). For example, when you design a logo for a company, the company pays you, on the one hand, for the hours of work that you dedicate to their order and, on the other hand, a stipulated amount so that they can use the logo that you have designed for them.
  • You, as the author, have the right to decide how your work will be disclosed. Continuing with the example of the logo, it is common for graphic designers to deliver with the design a manual of use or trademark application.
  • The law does not distinguish whether a graphic work has been commissioned or not. You may be commissioned to design an illustration for a book cover and be paid for that commission. In that case, you would assign some rights through a written assignment of rights agreement so that the client can use that image on the cover of his book. However, you will not be able to use it in other media not specified in the contract, or with the prior authorization of the designer.
  • Unless you have signed an exclusivity clause in the contract stating otherwise, as the author, you may reproduce your work without asking the client’s permission. For example, you can include the work in your portfolio or web gallery to promote yourself.
  • The contract must specify the number of years for which the work is transferred to the client. After this time, the client would have to contact you again to be able to make use of the visual elements you gave him/her.

How long do graphic design copyrights last?

As we have seen, graphic design is protected by the Copyright Law, which means that the duration of copyright applies.

Taking into account the current regulations, graphic design copyrights usually last for the life of the author + 70 years after his death. Once this time has passed, the work would become public domain, so it can be used by anyone, freely and free of charge.

how long copyright lasts

Protecting your graphic design works with Safe Creative

Last but not least, you should know how to protect your graphic design works.

As a designer you are covered by the Copyright Law, so you are not obliged to register your works. You can do it, or not, the law does not oblige you to. However, although there is no obligation, obtaining an internationally valid proof of authorship with a registration date could save you a lot of trouble in the future. Moreover, in case you have to go to court, you would have the most important proof.

Registering a graphic design is very easy with Safe Creative. After completing 3 simple steps you will receive an email with the information and the certificate of authorship registration.

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