Who Owns the Copyright of a Painting?

Owning a painting is not the same as owning the right to reproduce it. The copyright of a painting rests with the artist or their estate, no matter who owns the artwork. Copyright lasts for the artist’s lifetime and for at least seventy years after the artist’s death.

When you create a work of art it is automatically protected by copyright law. You are not required to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office to protect your work.

So long as artworks are in copyright anyone wishing to reproduce the artwork must seek the copyright holder’s permission. Artists can, however, sell their copyright. Sales of copyright must be put in writing; otherwise sales are invalid and cannot be legally enforced.

What is Copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code) to the creators of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available for both published and unpublished works. Section 106 of the 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright exclusive rights.

Copyright owner has the exclusive rights to:

  • Reproduce the work in copies or phono records
  • Prepare derivative works based upon the work
  • Distribute copies of the work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending
  • Perform the work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and motion pictures and other audiovisual works
  • Display the copyrighted work publicly, in the case of literary, musical, dramatic, and choreographic works, pantomimes, and pictorial, graphic, or sculptural works, including the individual images of a motion picture or other audiovisual work
  • In the case of sound recordings, to perform the work publicly by means of a digital audio transmission

In addition to copyright, certain authors of works of visual art also have the rights of attribution and integrity as described in section 106A of the 1976 Copyright Act.

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the copyright holder.

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