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Graphic Design Copyright Issues

It’s a scary word, but like all creative professionals, graphic designers need to understand it: Copyright. You’ve probably come across a copyright question or two –or 11 – in your time. So, to help you better understand it, here’s a quick rundown of common graphic design copyright issues.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: What does copyright mean? (For those of you wondering, but too afraid to ask, you’re welcome.) Copyright is the right to control reproduction and commercial exploitation of your work. This means others cannot make money off something you created, without compensating you. It protects any kind of artwork: Illustration, photographs, graphic designs etc.

Copyright falls under Intellectual Property laws, which concern creations of the human mind. So basically, if you can create it, you can own it. Now, let’s get into some of the questions you may already have:


Do I need to copyright my work?

Technically, your work is automatically protected under Intellectual Property laws (see above). Anything you create, design, draw or write is legally yours, provided you have physical evidence. To make sure, you can register your work under copyright laws.

There is an exception: If you’re employed or under contract to create this work, then it may be owned by your employer/contractor. Most employment agreements stipulate that anything you create for that company, while you’re employed, is owned by it. You may have the right to use it for your own portfolio; it’s best to run it by your employer first, just in case. You cannot, however, sell this work to another organization.


I did not create this image, can I use it?

We all know the importance of having access to royalty-free stock photos. But what if you come across graphics, designs or other images that someone else created? It’s safe to assume that any other images you find are copyrighted as well. But, if you alter the image and create something new, it can be considered derivative work, and avoid copyright laws.

When in doubt, contact the creator or whoever owns the rights to this image. Sometimes all it takes is asking for permission (and a small fee) to use an image.


Can you copyright typeface?

This is a complicated area for designers. By U.S. law, you cannot copyright typeface or font. However, typeface does come with a set of restrictions. For example, if you use a scalable typeface in a logo design, you must get permission from the creator. Also, you cannot sell a derivative of a typeface to a client. See what I mean by complicated.

Many designers and organizations have run into legal trouble for using certain typefaces in logos or other marketing material. For example, a company went head-to-head with NBC Universal for using a Harry Potter typeface on merchandise without permission. According to the article, they settled out of court.

Like any other copyright issue, it’s always a good idea to check with the owner if you have even the slightest doubt. If you want more information, the AIGA has lots of copyright resources for designers.


What copyright issues have you come across? How did you deal with them?


Author Michaela Schreiter

has written Posts 1 .

Michaela Schreiter is a Social Marketing Specialist at Corel. She manages corporate and product social media properties while developing content for Corel Blogs.

  1. Bianca Board On August 21st, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    Copyright gives me a right headache. But this was educational, thank you.

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