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Obtaining a Copyright for Your Visual Art

Applying for a copyright of your visual work of art is a smart move. As an owner of a copyright, you'll have the exclusive right to make copies, prepare derivative works, sell or distribute copies, and display the work publicly. A visual work of art can include:

  • Pictorial,
  • Graphic,
  • Sculptural, or
  • Architectural works.

Even bumper stickers and collages can be protected by copyright laws if you follow the correct steps when applying for your copyright. Follow along as FindLaw demonstrates how you can easily apply for a copyright with United States Copyright Office for your visual work of art.

Step 1

Make sure your work is a visual arts work. Visual arts are pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional works of fine, graphic, and applied art. Examples of visual arts include advertisements, artwork applied to "useful articles" (discussed in the next paragraph), cartoons, dolls, toys, collages, paintings, games, puzzles, models, needlework, photographs, sculpture, stencils, and technical drawings.

  • Useful Articles

A "useful article" is an object having an intrinsic utilitarian function that is not merely to portray the appearance of the article or to convey information. Examples are clothing, furniture, machinery, dinnerware, and lighting fixtures. An article that is normally part of a useful article may itself be a useful article, for example, an ornamental wheel cover on a vehicle. "Useful articles" may have both copyrightable and non-copyrightable features.

  • Architectural Works

Some architectural works also qualify as visual arts works. For example, an original design of a building embodied in any tangible medium of expression -- including a building, architectural plans, or drawings -- is subject to copyright protection as an architectural work. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design but does not include individual standard features or design elements that are functionally required.

Step 2

Put the work into one envelope or package:

1. A completed application Form VA

2. A $35 or $55 payment (depending on how you file) to "Register of Copyrights."

3. Nonreturnable copy(ies) of the material to be registered. Generally, submit one complete copy of the work if unpublished, two complete copies of the best edition if the work was first published in the United States, or, for certain types of works, identifying material instead of actual copies.You should read up on details of deposit requirements.

Step 3

Send the package to:

Library of Congress
Copyright Office
101 Independence Avenue, S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20559-6000

Your registration becomes effective on the day that the Copyright Office receives your application, payment, and copy(ies) in acceptable form. If your submission is in order, you will receive a certificate of registration in 4 to 5 months.

Filing Online

For a faster processing time, you may wish to consider filing online. The filing fee is considerably less and you'll save trees and a stamp.

For more details from the U.S. Copyright Office, please see:

  • Circular 40, Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts;
  • Circular 40a, Deposit Requirements in Visual Arts Material;
  • Circular 41, Copyright Claims in Architectural Works;
  • Circular 44, Cartoons and Comic Strips and other informational circulars.

How a Lawyer Can Help With Your Copyright Application

As an artist, you likely want to focus on what you love: making art. Leave the legal entanglements to a skilled attorney who is familiar with the U.S. Copyright office and application procedures. Contact an Intellectual Property attorney in your area for more information.

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