Art and Feminism, Michael Mandiberg and Jackie Maybe, 2016

The phase of the lifecycle of any project that we refer to as “copyright” addresses how authors’ exclusive legal rights over their projects are used. All original projects that you create are automatically copyrighted according to United States law and cannot be copied, distributed, built upon, or shared unless you allow it by license or assignment. As the Digital Media Law Project explains, “owning a copyright also gives you the exclusive right to prepare ‘derivative works,’ which are the original works in new forms—for example, a translation into another language, or a movie made from a novel, or a revised or expanded edition of an existing work. Someone who does these things without your permission is infringing on your copyright, and the law provides you recourse.” An exception to this occurs under the “fair use” doctrine which we will summarize later in the text.

There are many ways to license and assign your copyright. When you license your project, you lend your copyright to someone, controlling how they use it and how long they can use it for. You might license a drawing to a band for their album and also to an author for their book cover. When you assign your work, you transfer your copyright to someone else for specific uses. You can assign some or all of your rights, but you are giving away those copyrights forever. You might assign use of a drawing to a designer for their website so that no other website will ever have that drawing on it. When you sign a work for hire agreement, you sell your copyright entirely. Anything you create under that agreement belongs to the person hiring you, as if they created it. For example, you might make a drawing for a toy company under a work for hire agreement and they do not need to credit you, because they own it.

In 2015, Getty Images demanded that the documentary photographer Carol Highsmith pay a $120 fine for copyright infringement because she posted one of her own photographs on her website. She subsequently learned that Getty Images had charged fees to many users of her images, an unlawful act since Highsmith had been donating thousands of her images to the Library of Congress since 1988 for use by the general public at no charge. The $1 billion copyright infringement suit against Getty for “gross misuse” of 18,755 of her photographs was settled out of court.

Download the full chapter: Copyright as a PDF

Download Teacher/Facilitator Guides

  1. Future Project: Copyright (worksheet)
  2. Past Project: Copyright (worksheet)
  3. Historical Consciousness (worksheet)
  4. Creative Commons Discussion (activity)
  5. Give a Prior Work a Creative Commons License That Is Aligned with Your Intentions for the Project (assignment)
  6. Make a Work for Hire Agreement for Someone (assignment)
  7. Make an Instruction Manual so That Someone Else Could Re-Make Your Project without You (assignment)