Copyright Basics for Graphic Designers

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As designers, it is crucial to know and understand some of the copyright laws, design patents, and trademark issues that exist today. Copyright laws exist to protect artwork, illustrations, photographs, and other graphical imagery. This doesn’t apply if you are a painter or if your work is a fixed form of creative expression. Under these circumstances, you own the copyright in your work the moment you create it. For any designer, it is imperative to get their seal on all the original pieces they create and they should also cite any borrowed graphics to avoid any unnecessary legal issues.

We have gathered some helpful tips about copyright laws straight from the people who know it best- lawyers.  We hope that these 10 tips on copyright laws will train you the basics on properly citing your work.

1. What can be copyrighted?

As designers, it can be helpful to know what can and can’t be copyrighted. Some of the things that can’t be copyrighted are – Titles/Slogans, names, measurement Charts, calendars, symbols, color, and letter variations. Even though the listed elements can’t be copyrighted, they can be protected by trademarks. When you trademark something you are assigning a particular name, figure or symbol to it so that it remains unique to a merchant or a manufacturer and can easily be distinguished in the marketplace. Copyright, on the other hand, is when you use something trademarked in the form of a written text to convey a viewpoint while citing it as yours.

2. Registration

You own copyrights for your work as soon as you put your work in print. So registration is not necessary to claim the work as your own.  Although you do need to register if you want to represent your claim in the marketplace and to let people know that they can’t claim it as their own. As a designer or an artist, you don’t have to go to the US Copyright office in order to obtain a copyright in the work, it arises as soon as you put your pen/brush on paper. Registering your copyright, however, brings additional benefits.

3. Creative work and copyright protection

Creative work can be protected by the law but an idea does not receive any kind of protection. This legal protection of the creative work allows the copyright owner to have exclusive rights to reproduce artwork, use it to create similar works of art, share copies of work and publically display their work. When you work for a company, they usually would have you sign an NDA form so your work is only theirs but it is a good practice to get shared rights to your work so that you can use it as a reference for future.

4.  What is copyright infringement?

When someone copies your design without giving you credit for your work or uses it without your permission, they are infringing on your copyright. The two basic elements of copyright infringement are the following: – Owning valid copyright and copying by the defendant. Exact standards vary from country to country. Filling out an application and registration online is not going to protect your work from being infringed. It is important to understand the ramifications and what else you need to know to protect yourself and your work.

5.  Defining original work

When your work is easily distinguishable as your own effort, then it is considered original. It doesn’t necessarily have to stand out from the crowd but it has to be different enough to be called an original. If a design is slightly modified or customized from the original, it still has the right to be called an original. For example, a Cadbury chocolate wrapper with a different color scheme and without its logo can be called an original even if the artwork/ design remains the same.

6.  Creative Commons licenses

Creative Commons is a type of copyright that is available to content makers who would like to share their works with a community. It comes with a condition that their work is properly attributed. You can get one of the 6 available licenses through the site – some of them allow you to use them for commercial and non-commercial purposes and then some only for non-commercial purposes. Creative Commons allows artists and designers to share their work online and get a license while they are at it. This allows you to guard your work within that license.

7.  Duration of copyright protection

Copyright protection usually lasts long after a person’s death. Sometimes it lasts even up to 50 years. In the US it lasts 20 years longer. Although the copyright laws vary from nation to nation.

8.  Copyright protection outside the United States

General laws of copyright protection are accepted by most countries in the world. All the countries that have signed the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works should follow the same conventions although deadlines, duration, and court processes may vary slightly.


When someone takes credit for the artists work, he or she is taking more than just the artwork itself. They are taking away all the processes that led the artist to be inspired to create that work. If you are inspired by someone else’s work then use it to make something unique and acknowledge the person behind the work when you can. Take your copyright infringement seriously, this way you will be able to meet the challenges head on before it gets worse. Artists and designers work long hours to come with their work, so it is important to preserve their integrity and give the credit where its due.

Iggy is a designer who loves experimenting with new web design techniques, collating creative website designs, and writing about the latest design trends, inspiration, design freebies, and more. You can follow him on Twitter

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