Skip to main content

Legal information for visual artists

If you are a visual artist, this page will help you learn about important legal issues that affect you and your work. Most legal issues that visual artists come across are about copyright and moral rights.

Whether you make art just for pleasure or you want to make money from your work, this information will help you protect your rights.

The information on this page applies to a whole range of art forms, including drawing, painting, printmaking, photography, digital art, sculpture, craftwork, graphic art and more. 

On this page:

Copyright for visual artists

Copyright is important because it protects your work against use by others without your permission and allows you to get money for your work

As a visual artist, you have the right to:

  • reproduce or copy your work;
  • publish your work in a book, magazine or newspaper; and
  • communicate your work, for example, put your artwork on the internet.

Other people will need your permission or a licence if they wish to do these things.

Copyright and use of your work

It is important for you not to lose ownership or control of your copyright. When you give someone permission to use your work, you can ask for money in exchange.

Copyright and employed or commissioned visual artists

If you are paid to make an artwork, portrait or photograph for private use by someone else, you probably won’t own the copyright. The person paying for this work will be the copyright owner.

Moral rights for visual artists

Moral rights are personal rights that connect the creator of a work to their work. As a visual artist, moral rights mean that:

  • people must know you are the creator of your work if it is shown in public;
  • no one else can be named as the creator of your work; and
  • your work cannot be treated in a way that hurts your reputation.

You should have an opinion on how your work is to be shown and how your name appears with your work. If someone is going to show your work in public make sure you tell them how you want it to be seen by other people.

Exhibitions, festivals and competitions

If you enter your work in an exhibition, festival, art prize or competition there are usually conditions of entry, which you are asked to agree to before sending your work. Make sure that you have received, read and understood the conditions of entry before sending any work to the organisers. Get legal advice if there is anything you do not understand or do not agree to.

Important things to remember

  • Usually, you own the copyright in visual works you create.
  • You always have moral rights in relation to your work.
  • If your work is shown in public you should have the following information somewhere near it, and in any catalogue:
    • your name, title of artwork (in italics), the materials used in the artwork, the year the work was made; e.g. John Doe, Still Life, acrylic on canvas, 2015
  • No one should use your work without your written permission or licence.
  • When you put a work in an exhibition, festival, art prize or competition, make sure you sign a fair and balanced contract with the organisers.
  • Show you own the copyright by adding to your work: the copyright notice (©), your name and the year you made it, e.g. © John Smith 2010

Legal tips

  • You are allowed to say what permission you will give and negotiate a payment of money in exchange for your permission.
  • If you are giving permission to use your work or are employed by someone to create art, write down what you have agreed.
  • Always have a written contract between you and a gallery or exhibition organiser.
  • Get legal advice. Do not sign or agree to anything you do not understand.
  • If you are employed to create work, or paid to make a portrait or photograph, you probably won’t own the copyright. But remember that you still have moral rights. You must still be credited as the artist if your work is shown in public.