In this post, I’m going to talk about public domain and copyright for artists. Did you know that as a lettering artist, we cannot legally sell a piece of artwork with a quote, music lyrics or a scripture that is copyrighted?
*DISCLAIMER: I am not an intellectual property lawyer (nor any other kind of lawyer) and this post should not be taken as legal advice or permission.*
Technically the quote or scripture needs to either be in the public domain or we need to have written permission to use the quote on products.
That’s why I’ve been using a public domain version of the Bible for any pieces I plan to sell. Bible Gateway has a list of Bible translations that are in the public domain here.
You can also pay to use a particular translation of the Bible in your work. One of my lettering artist friends said she paid $5 per print to use the ESV and warned me that the NIV is very expensive. For example, to request licensing information for the ESV, go here and click ESV Bible and then click the link for Artwork.
What is the Public Domain?
Public domain is content that is no longer copyrighted. Typically it is content created before 1923 or the copyright has expired. Also, most works of the US government are not copyrighted. See more details here.
For example, the Colorado flag is in the public domain. Therefore, anyone, including myself, can use it on products for sale without paying a licensing fee.
Also, the WEB version of the Bible is in the public domain. It is a more modern translation and so is what I’m currently using for products I plan to sell. If there is a specific scripture I want to create in a copyrighted translation, I will apply for a licensing fee as needed.
Copyright for Artists: A Personal Example
Recently, I had a client want me to do an Albert Einstein quote for a commissioned piece. I did research and there are licensing agencies for Albert Einstein. I searched “Albert Einstein licensing” in Google. You have to apply for permission to use a quote and typically it will cost something to get the license to sell products with the quote on it.
So I let my client know that I would have to apply for permission to use the quote. The licensing agencies replied back quickly and let me know that this particular quote cannot be verified as Albert Einstein and therefore licensing is not possible for it.
My client and I decided to leave his name off the quote and I moved forward with the commission. You can see the final piece below.
Selling Your Artwork Legally
However, many lettering artists violate copyright every day.
As a publisher myself, I am very aware of copyright laws. I don’t want someone else to steal my work and profit off of it and so am careful to not illegally use other people’s work.
For example, I wouldn’t want someone to take one of my watercolor paintings or lettered artwork and profit it from it without licensing the design from me.
If you are practicing your lettering and posting your work on social media WITHOUT selling it, you’re fine to use a copyrighted quote. However, don’t sell your work if you used copyrighted material.
Instead, either ask permission to use the quote if the person is still alive or purchase a licensing agreement that allows you to legally sell artwork using that quote.
Want to Learn More?
I’m planning on teaching a premium course all about selling your products. I will share a list of people with public domain quotes you can legally use as well as teach you how to digitize watercolor and lettering, sell prints and cards, share about licensing your work and more.
If you’re interested in this topic, contact me and I’ll add you to the notification list.
What Do You Think About Copyright for Artists?
This is an area I think that we need to talk about more in the lettering community. So many people are unaware of the laws when it comes to copyright.
What is your opinion regarding copyright for artists? Do you think it’s important for us to follow these laws? Share your thoughts in the comments below.