Updated: Aug 14, 2020
What happens to your rights as an author when you sell a painting, sculpture or unique piece of jewelry? We are used to thinking about copyright law in the context of movies, songs, and literature. No one assumes that when they purchase a blu-ray, mp3, or novel, they have also purchased the rights to upload clips or passages to their personal websites or to make copies without the content creator's permission. If a new serial drama debuts on Netflix tomorrow and the opening scene features a song by Beyoncé, most of us would not be surprised to then see her (and her staff and fans) on social media crying foul.
However, fewer of us extend this acknowledgement of the bundle of rights that accompany creation to visual art. Under the same scenario, imagine if an artist complained on Twitter "when I sold Movie Producer my painting, it was for his personal enjoyment; I never intended for him to feature it in a film."
Most of us would probably respond with a shrug gif, "but you sold it to him; it's his now."
Alas, we may never convince the general public your painting is no different from Beyoncé's song. Fortunately, US copyright law needs no convincing. Section 102 of title 17 states:
Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.
If you are a visual artist, and patrons are using your paintings, sculptures, or designs for personal, quantifiable gain (directly or indirectly), contact us. We can go over all communications, invoices, and contracts (if any) to see if you have retained your copyright even after selling the work of art itself. We can also write for you agreements to purchase, contracts for commission, and license agreements so these issues are clearly delineated when the work of art is sold, and make sure you are fairly compensated the next time a movie producer stumbles into your gallery whispering to herself "this would be perfect for my next project..."
Blog posts do not constitute legal advice nor representation. Consult us or another attorney of your choosing before acting.