Copyright Basics Every Graphic Design Client Needs To Know - Unlimited Graphic Design Service

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Copyright Basics Every Graphic Design Client Needs To Know

July 3, 2019, by

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A good graphic designer is someone who can provide your company with creative work that suits your brand and gives it a face and personality that targets the right audience. Every entrepreneur who’s worth their salt would tell you that graphic design is essential for success. And failure if your graphic design team is not knowledgeable in copyright laws.
A responsible graphic designer will know what these laws are. However, you, as a client, should also arm yourself with information so you can avoid infringement altogether. Also, the internet has brought so much good in our everyday lives, but it isn’t devoid of evil. You have to protect your property from thieves that abound the cyberspace.

What is Copyright?

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

What You Can’t 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 protecte4d 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.  


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 make a claim for copyright infringement, you must have the work copyrighted.

Copyright Ownership 

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.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is taking your artwork, or a substantial part of it, without asking for your permission. Each country has their 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

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

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 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 

Copyright is automatic but there are a lot of benefits in registering your artwork as copyrighted. You can claim for damages or compensation should unauthorize 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, 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 

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 

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

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.

Final Thoughts

In today’s technologically advanced world, graphic design has never been more exposed to plagiarism than ever before. Knowing how you can protect your rights as an owner can help avoid all the problems involved in cases of infringement. As a copyright holder, you can have the leverage of protecting your designs and getting compensation should anyone copy or use them illegally.

About the author

Cel is a traditional animator for over than 15 years. She is also a Fine Arts Graduate who majored in Advertising and is now a Content Writer.

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