Graphic Design Copyright Basics Every Client Needs To Know

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by Graphicszoo 15+ days ago 5 mins read

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Before making any type of design work, graphic designers are expected to know the laws that come with their profession. 

But because the internet has become such a huge resource of inspiration for art and design, some designers take advantage by taking the easier and shorter route by coming up with unoriginal work. 

What’s worse is that clients, more often than not, might not even be aware whether the designs provided by their designers are unoriginal or are being copied by others.

As a client, you certainly don’t want to get involved in these situations because it will harm your brand’s credibility. In the end, it’s your brand who will deal with the most damage.

This means that you have to be wary, and knowing the basics of graphic design copyright laws will protect you from unoriginal and plagiarized designs. 

In this article, we’ll tell you all about copyright laws that you, as a client, need to know. Like graphic design terms and conditions, if you will.

But like all terms and conditions, we know that the copyright subject as a whole is vast and riddled with technical and legal jargon that might take you some time to fully understand. 

So we’ve condensed them to give you only the basics and the most important things that you need to know, just enough to get you started!


What is copyright?

According to the United States Copyright Office, the law uses copyright as a means to protect original works and their authors. In the United States, this protection is automatically given right from the moment the work is fixed.

This means that with copyright laws, protection is automatically given to any graphic design work the moment it is created.

Original works from sources outside the United States, however, are still protected by copyright laws. The World Intellectual Property Organization protects original works and their authors originating from all of the 179 contracting states of the Berne Convention.

The full list of contracting states can be seen here.


What is “original” and “fixed” work anyway?

Certain work is considered original as long as it’s made independently (by a human, at that), not deliberately and intentionally copied from another work, and has even the slightest amount of creativity. 

Now, original work only becomes fixed when “it is captured (either by or under the authority of an author) in a sufficiently permanent medium such that the work can be perceived, reproduced, or communicated for more than a short time.”

A finished graphic design is already fixed, as the image file is the document itself. But any performances, like dance performances, for example, have to be captured through a video recording or any other means of documentation in order for it to be considered as a fixed and tangible piece of work.


What “works” do copyright protect?

Copyright protects any fixed and original works from the following:

  • Literature, such as poetry and novels
  • Music, including lyrics and musical composition
  • Sound recordings, like audio dramas, podcasts, and musical recordings
  • Dramatic works
  • Choreographies, like dance performances 
  • Static visual art, like photographs, graphics, paintings, and sculptures
  • Architectural designs
  • Movies and other artistic audio-visuals

Since copyright requires creativity, it does not protect mere factual works and intangible concepts such as:

  • Facts and discoveries
  • Ideas and concepts
  • Principles
  • Systems, processes, procedures, and methods
  • Names and titles
  • Other works with similar nature

The interpretations and expressions of these works, however, may still be protected by copyright, as long as they are still original and expressed on a fixed and tangible medium.


What rights do copyrights give?

With copyright, the author (creator and/or owner) has the exclusive right to do the following:

  • Make copies and reproductions of copyrighted works
  • Make derivative works from the original copyrighted work
  • Distribute, perform, and/or display copyrighted works publicly
  • Give others the ability to do these rights

Aside from these rights, a copyright gives other benefits to the authors as well.

Having your works copyrighted gives you, the author, the authority to file for an infringement suit in court. Copyright also makes you eligible for statutory damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs.


Who owns the copyrighted works?

Generally, copyrighted works belong to their creators. If multiple people contributed to a single work that is whole and each of their efforts is merged as one final inseparable work, then all of the people involved are considered joint authors of the final work.

However, if multiple people contributed to a work that is a collection of separate individual works, then each of their contributions is considered separate from the copyright owner of the entire collection.

But not all “creators” own the copyright for the works that they created. The copyrights for “works made for hire” are owned by the company that hired the person who created the work. In such cases, the company or the entity that hired the “creator” is considered the “author” of the work.

This means that even if you outsource graphic design, the contracting company still owns the work unless there’s an agreement that states the copyright ownership.

Follow up question: But what if I legally bought a copy of a copyrighted work? Does that automatically make me its author?

The short answer is no. Owning a mere copy does not make you an author of the copyrighted work.

You may become an author of a copyrighted work, however, if its original author transfers their authorship to you. Although in such cases, the agreement can still be terminated by the original author after 35 years, as stated by the Copyright Act.


How long does a copyright last?

Generally, the duration of copyright depends on its authors and it can last for decades after its creation, publication, or author’s death.

For individual copyrighted works, the duration of copyright is the life of the author plus 70 years after their death.

For copyrighted works owned by multiple authors, the duration of copyright is the life of the authors plus 70 years after the death of the last living author.

For works made for hire, works made by an anonymous author, or works made by an author under an alias or pseudonym, the duration of copyright is 95 years after the date of publication or 120 years after the date of creation, whichever is deemed shorter.


How do I use copyrighted work?

If you intend on using copyrighted work, in general, you have to ask for permission from the copyright owner first and then be able to use it through an agreement. Although in some cases, using copyrighted work without permission is allowed through fair use.

In general, fair use does not intend to copy the original copyrighted work, but only intends to educate, criticize, comment on, or make a parody that is based on the work.


To conclude...

Knowing copyright basics and being aware of your rights as a client is crucial for your business.

In truth, graphic design nowadays can really be prone to copyright infringement situations that can lead to customer distrust, or worse, avoidable lawsuits that take too much time, money, and effort which are all invaluable resources for your company.

Our graphic designers at Graphics Zoo observe and know all about graphic design copyright laws. If you want exceptionally creative and original graphic designs for your company, send us an email at