A skilled graphic designer can bring your brand to life with creative work that aligns with your vision and appeals to your target audience. But it’s just as important for designers to have a strong grasp of copyright in graphic design to avoid legal problems. As a client, it doesn’t hurt for you to brush up on these laws too. This will ensure your assets are protected in today’s digital landscape, where theft and infringement are a growing concern.

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What is Copyright in Graphic Design?

what is copyright in graphic design

Copyright law is the law that protects creative work from unauthorized copying and usage. Illustrations, photographs, and graphic designs that users reproduce and exploit for commercial purposes without the permission of the owner or designer are a clear violation of this law.

What You Can’t Copyright

what can't you copyright?

Before we delve deeper into this law, let’s get to know what is and what’s not protected by it. The US Copyright Office states that for something to be protected by this law, it has to be in a tangible form. As an example, your idea can only be copyrighted once you write it down on paper.
Here are the things you can’t copyright:

  • Ideas, Systems, Methods
  • Names, Titles
  • Slogans, Expressions, Short Phrases
  • Symbols, Measuring Charts, Calendars
  • Choreographic Works
  • Letters or Color Variations
  • Commonly Known Information
  • Fashion

These can’t be copyrighted but trademarks can protect these. The difference is that copyright protects literary and artistic works such as videos, music, and books. While a trademark protects logos and other artwork that defines a company brand.  


copyright registration icon

Once one creates original artwork, the current copyright law automatically protects it. Even without notice or undergoing the registration process. The author or owner of the artwork has the right, by default, to decide who can use, copy, or reproduce it under conditions set by them. 
However, if you still want to have the capability of suing unauthorized users and making a claim for copyright infringement, you must have the work copyrighted.

Copyright Ownership 

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When you commission a graphic designer to create an artwork, who gets ownership? The person who creates the artwork is automatically considered as the “author” and is the owner of the copyright as stated under the law. In the “work made for hire” situation, you, as the client, get to own the copyright of the work a graphic designer creates within the scope of his full-time employment.

If you hired an independent contractor, they should assign the copyrights to you through a legal contract between both parties in exchange for the remuneration that you agreed upon. However, the artist is only prohibited to use the artwork elsewhere, but they can definitely claim it as their creation.

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Copyright Infringement

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Copyright infringement is taking your artwork, or a substantial part of it, without asking for your permission. Each country has its own set standards of what constitutes a substantial part. Generally, it is considered the part that truly defines your work and what makes it original.

Fair Use

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Fair use in copyright is when the artwork is used, without asking for the owner’s permission. It’s applicable for non-commercial, transformative, educational, and parody purposes only.

How to Determine Originality

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Which brings us to the question, how is originality in an artwork defined? There is no black-and-white answer to this as this remains one of the most debated areas of copyright infringement. Conflict usually arises when one designer uses another designer’s work as a reference. It is an infringement when the second artist’s work is “substantially similar” to the first one.

“Substantially similar” is when the average person would recognize that the second artwork has the same “artistic expression” that was used in the first. There is no formula to determine this, not even the 20% rule. So if the designer has changed 20% of the artwork, it is still considered an infringement.

How to Prove Ownership 

human figure holding up badge

Copyright in graphic design is automatic but there are a lot of benefits to registering your artwork as copyrighted. You can claim damages or compensation should unauthorized people use your artwork. If you have not registered your work, there are still some things you can do to prove that it is yours.

You should have records of your original artwork, dates of publication, and even witnesses to prove your ownership. You then have to prove that there is a connection between your artwork and the copied version of it for you to seek compensation.

Creative Commons Licenses 

creative commons license card

A Creative Commons license is one of the many public copyright licenses that allow creators and authors to share their work as long as it is properly attributed to them. There are six different types of Creative Commons licenses and each one has its own set of features that licensors can use depending on how they want the artwork to be shared or reproduced.

Length of Protection 

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The duration of a copyright term differs from nation to nation. In the US, it is 70 years after the death of the author or owner.

Copyright Protection in Other Countries

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In the event that your artwork has reached the global level, you have copyright protection for it. This is applicable in all of the countries that signed the agreement in the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. These countries comprise a majority of the world, therefore, this law protects your design wherever it may land.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do Graphic Designers Get Copyright?

Any graphic designer wanting to copyright their work can register it at their country’s Copyright office. Those in the United States can register with the U.S. Copyright Office. There, the graphic designer can fill out a form. Once completed, they will pay a filing fee and submit a copy of their work to complete registration and get the copyright.

Is Graphic Design Copyright?

Not until graphic designers or businesses register it for copyright. But there are certain eligibility factors and considerations to ensure a copyright in graphic design work. To reiterate, according to U.S. Copyright Law, a piece of art can be copyrighted with the following:

  • Originality
  • Fixed in a tangible form
  • Authorship

Is Graphic Design Intellectual Property?

Graphic design can only be considered intellectual property legally if it’s registered for copyright. While graphic designers can claim they own a particular graphic, it’s not yet copyrighted if not registered. The same goes for businesses.

Businesses may also register the copyright to their visual materials in the U.S. Copyright Office. However, it’s important for businesses to know if the graphic design is 100% owned by them. In any case, they can register it as theirs. However, if the graphic designer may need credit, the business should add the designer as a co-owner of their design.

How to Request Original Graphic Designs from Penji

Our team at Penji is well-versed in copyright laws. So, all our clients rest assured that using the images they request from us won’t get them into any legal trouble. In addition to that, requesting a design from us is so easy. In fact, all it takes is a few clicks!

1. Create

how to create a project in penji

In your Penji dashboard, click “Create new project.” You can choose from a list of graphic design categories – from logos, business cards, and other branding assets to online ads, blog cover graphics, and social media banners. If the asset you’re requested isn’t listed, you can choose “custom project.”

You can then fill out the needed info about the project, including the title, description, and links to reference images. The app is pretty nifty – it also allows users to choose royalty-free photos they want to be incorporated into the design. In addition to that, you can also select a color palette you want for the project. Once you’re done, click the “Create project” button. 

2. Revise

how to make revisions in Penji's platform

In 24 to 48 hours, the designer assigned to your project will deliver a draft for your review. If you need anything changed, just point the clicker to the part of the image and type your comments or suggestions. The draft will be returned to the graphic designer for revision.

3. Download

how to download your designs in penji

Once the design suits your requirements, just click on the “Download” button, and the graphic will automatically be saved on your computer.

Get Unlimited Original Designs from Penji

In today’s business climate, a steady stream of content and graphics is a must-have. It’s never been easier to copy and plagiarize, but there’s also more public scrutiny than ever before. A big part of upholding your brand reputation is originality and honesty. Our team of graphic designers will work with you to make original promotional materials when you need them. As the copyright holder, you have the leverage of protecting your designs and getting compensation should anyone copy or use them illegally.

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