can I keep my copyright while letting others use parts of it?

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Yes! Just as when you own a home you can sell all of it or part of it, rent the whole thing to someone else, rent just a room, or do any other combination of ownership that could be put into an agreement, so too you can divide up your copy rights.

Theoretically, the possibilities are limitless. For instance, you could sell the original painting to a buyer and (unless you agree in writing to sell the copyright as well*) you automatically retain the copyright. You could then transfer (by a contract called a license) to a company the right to make and sell wall art in the U.S. and license the right to make and sell wall art in the U.K. to another company. You could also license the right to a magazine to use the image to illustrate an article, while entering a contract with a textile manufacturer who wants to use a piece of the image for a repeat fabric design.

Get the picture? (Pardon the pun?) You can, by contract, license the rights to a single image for any number of product usages or other placements, to be sold or used in specific geographical regions, and limit each transfer to a certain amount of time.

Of course, you’ll want to be thoughtful about how you do this. You’ll want to be sure that each placement or use of the image reflects well on your brand and doesn’t compete with any other use you’ve granted. For example, if you licensed an image to one manufacturer of laptop cases, that manufacturer is most likely going to want exclusive rights to that particular image, for that particular product format, for a particular period of time. This is reasonable, as long as they hold up their end of the bargain (e.g. reproducing your art well, on a well-made product and promoting/selling it as promised, etc.). Look for opportunities that complement one another rather than compete, as well as for opportunities that will help keep your art and your brand fresh and exciting for the consumer.

You’ll probably run into companies now and then who are very interested in your work but who tell you, “Oh, we don’t license art. We only buy it.” While that’s a legitimate business position that can make a lot of sense for the company, we hope you’ll think very carefully before accepting such a deal, and don’t be afraid to offer alternatives (such as a flat fee license rather than a royalty-based license). For all the potential licensing opportunities listed above—and then some—it’s usually in your best interest to retain as many usage rights as you can, while licensing to the interested party only those specific rights he/she requires.

We have a whole series coming soon where we’ll dive into the components of a standard art license agreement and begin to tease out more of these nuances. In the meanwhile, just remember that your art is your intellectual property… So be a good property manager!

* If you routinely sell your originals, it’s a good practice to put a notice on the receipt (and/or other official paperwork related to the transfer of ownership) informing the buyer that you retain the copyright in the work. You might also consider putting a discreet copyright notice on the back of the work itself.


Please remember: The information provided on this blog and throughout our website is intended for general educational purposes only. While some information on this site relates to the law as a topic, it's not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Only a lawyer, selected by you and fully informed of the facts relating to your particular situation, can render legal advice.