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An Artist’s Guide to Protecting Art on Social Media

By Heather Regnier
University of Colorado School of Law
Juris Doctorate Candidate 2024

Hard work, time, money, and pride are the basic elements each artist puts into his or her creations. It is only natural for artists to feel the need to share their works with the world. Nowadays, social media is a nesting ground for artists to publish their pieces for endless audiences. However, exposure brings risks. There will always be thieves prowling social media looking to profit off of someone else’s hard work. The best way to deal with copyright infringement is to get ahead of it. Do not wait for someone to steal your work before you decide to take action. Before making art public, there are several steps artists should consider to ensure their work is protected.

Signing your artwork may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many artists forgo adding their signature because they believe it impedes the piece’s aesthetic. A signature is a barrier to a thief trying to pass off the artwork as their own. Watermarking is another easy step to protecting artwork. While it may interfere a bit with the art itself, it will be another hurdle thieves will have to work around if they are determined to steal your piece. The most proactive method is adding a copyright notice near your work. Using the word ‘Copyright’ or its symbol, the year the art was first published, and your name or your company’s name, i.e., © 2021 Jane Doe establishes legal standing. More on copyright protection below.

Journal the journey! Having a dated or time-stamped photo album or vlog documenting the process will not only trace the origin of the artwork but also showcase your raw artistic talent. This will keep track of when the project was started, how much time it took, and when it became a finished product. Remember, only the finished product may be entitled to protection.

Registering your work for a small fee starting at $45 with the U.S. Copyright Office is the biggest step an artist can take to protect their artwork. The Copyright Act establishes that an artist’s work is automatically protected upon creation. This may lure some people into complacency, but it shouldn’t. Copyright registration is necessary to sue for copyright infringement. The sooner an artist files, the better. When registration is made before infringement or within three months of first publication, the artist could be eligible for statutory damages, coverage of attorney fees, and costs, without having to prove actual damages or the amount the infringer profited from the work. Registering an artwork after infringement can limit the amount of compensation an artist will receive.

Copyright registration gives the artist more than simply legal standing to sue. Much like a “Beware of Dog” sign, the copyright notice mentioned earlier — that can be used even before a work is registered — can act as a deterrent to thieves. This notice will show a potential infringer that an artist has performed his or her due diligence and will likely take an aggressive approach to infringement. Should the thief choose to pursue your art anyway, use of the copyright notice will mean the infringer cannot claim ignorance when accused of infringement. Paying a copyright registration fee is not ideal for the cost-conscious artist, but the pros that come with a copyright registration of a valuable work can far outweigh the cons.

Simply making your art a difficult target reduces the risk of infringement. If you are taking the time to protect your art physically, you should also take the time to protect it intellectually. Always have a plan before making your art public and being proactive from the start will save you time, money, and stress.

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