Copyright Licensing and Assigning

Copyright – Basic Rights, Licencing & Assigning

Australian Copyright law requires any person who reproduces an artwork to seek the permission of the person who owns the copyright of that artwork. Generally copyright law covers an artwork as soon as the artwork is made. It is not necessary to go through a formal process of registering a work. The artist who makes the work is usually the first owner of copyright. However, copyright is a form of personal property and it can be formally transferred or sold to another person, usually through the assignment or licensing of the copyright. When an artist assigns the copyright of an artwork, someone else becomes the owner of that copyright. When an artist licences the copyright of an artwork, they still own the copyright but they allow someone else to use the artwork. An exclusive license gives the rights to use the work to only one person.

Copyright – Auction Catalogue Issue

For the last few years many artists have been fighting to receive payment for their work when it is reproduced in the sales catalogues published by auction houses. In some instances, the works of art, which were often originally sold by the artists for relatively modest sums of money are sold by the auction house for large sums of money. While artists do not receive any return, regardless of how much their work has increased in value when their work is sold by someone else (a right that artists have in some countries), they argue that at least they should receive a fee for their work being reproduced in the auction catalogue. The auction houses argue that this cost would be prohibitive and that the artists do ultimately benefit by having their work included because it increases their professional profile and can indirectly contribute to people being prepared to pay more for artists’ work.

Copyright – Cullen vs ABC TV Issue

Adam Cullen's portrait of David Wenham.In 2001, the Sydney-based artist, Adam Cullen, lodged a complaint with ABC TV about his portrait of David Wenham, for which he won the Archibald Prize, being used in an advertisement for ABC Radio. VISCOPY argued, on Cullen’s behalf, that the fee for using an artwork in this manner was usually $2,250 per second. However, instead of paying the $67,500 requested, the ABC eventually negotiated a payment of $80 to the artist. Cullen said that the money was not important but that the complaint related to ‘aesthetic and ethical respect’. Artists also have the right to control how their images are presented when they are reproduced. In relation to his concerns about the use of his work by the ABC, Cullen said ‘It’s art…it’s not just some random image…it’s been cretinised into something that has nothing to do with the art’s original conception, production and eventual context’ (Timms 2001).

Copyright – Licencing & Assigning Conditions

Assignment or Exclusive Licence

Special conditions often apply when copyright in an artwork is assigned or licensed. These conditions may control where, when or how the artwork is used. They also often involve payment for the right to own or use the image. The fees charged to reproduce an artwork can vary dramatically, from artist to artist or according to how and where the artwork is to be reproduced. For example, an artist may not charge a fee if their work is being used as part of a not-for-profit education resource. However, if the work is going to be widely reproduced on a commercial product a fee is often charged. The copyright of an artwork is separate from the artwork itself. This means that when an artist sells a work, they still own the rights of copyright to that artwork. The copyright rights to an artwork generally last for the life of the artist plus 70 years. After the death of the copyright owner, the copyright rights, like property, will be transferred to another person under the terms of the will left by the copyright owner.

Copyright – Managing through VisCopy

Licensing of popular cartoon or toy images is a big business and a significant source of revenue for those who own the rights to the image. The copyright of works for a significant number of Australian artists is managed through VISCOPY. This agency was established in 1995 with a government grant and now operates as a not-for-profit copyright collecting agency. It also helps artists in negotiations and in overseeing quality control when their work is being reproduced. Galleries who own or exhibit the work of particular artists can also sometimes assist with copyright enquiries.

Copyright – Commercial & Non-commercial Uses

Artworks are reproduced and copied for many different reasons. Often artworks are reproduced for commercial purposes in books, magazines and on TV, as prints and posters, and on T-shirts and coffee cups. While many artists do not charge a fee for their work being used in this way, especially when the work is reproduced for not-for-profit or educational purposes, they are within their rights to do so.


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