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Copyright Registration: Some thoughts on registering a series of paintings

by Brian Sherwin on 9/11/2011 10:42:19 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Conservative Punk, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint, Vandalog, COMPANY and Art Fag City. Disclaimer: This author's views are entirely his/her own and may not reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

My recent copyright and copyright registration articles have spurred readers to ask more about what is needed to register a series of paintings with the US Copyright Office. Point blank -- I'm finding that many artists are concerned with how the price of registering individual works of art can add up. Thus, registering a series of paintings as a collection is far more affordable than registering the images individually. However, registering a collection involves specific conditions that must be met.


If you decide to register images of your paintings as a collection you must plan ahead. For example, the process is less complicated if the works in the collection are unpublished. If the works are unpublished -- have not appeared in a newspaper or magazine -- they can be registered as a collection relatively easily. In fact, it can all be done on one application under one title according to the US Copyright Office website -- and the fee is generally the same as it would be if you were registering a single image. Thus, for registering the collection you are looking at $35 to $50 depending on how you choose to register the collection.


I know that some readers may be thinking, "But I don't want to exhibit -- or list my art for sale -- under one title.". To that I say -- there is nothing stopping you from exhibiting the individual paintings from the collection under different titles. In fact, the US Copyright Office realizes that you will likely exhibit your paintings under different titles -- they make it clear that it is not necessary to list the individual titles during registration of the collection. That said, formally -- from a legal perspective -- the paintings are officially a collection once registration of the collection takes place. They are all equally protected under that registration.


As mentioned, planning ahead is important -- because if just one of the images you plan to register as a collection has been published in the past the validity of the registration will not uphold if ever you find yourself in court facing a copyright infringer. True, in that scenario the copyright infringers attorney may never find out about the published images -- but if he or she does the registration will not hold. In other words, in that scenario the infringers attorney could protect him or her from being legally hit with statutory damages and attorney's fees. Point blank -- make sure that the images in the collection have not been published prior to registration or you may regret it later.


Why would the registration fail in court if you slipped a published work into the collection you registered in regard to the above scenario? Simple. It would fail if discovered because there is a different set of copyright registration rules for published works. Point blank -- published works can only be registered as a collection if they were published as a collection. In other words, a registered collection can't be made up of a mix of unpublished and published works.


The rules for registering an unpublished collection of images with the US Copyright Office is straightforward in my opinion. As mentioned, one of the main rules is that the group of images must be registered under the same title. In addition to that, it is generally less complicated if all aspects of the work is copyrighted under a single individuals name. In other words, the collection registration process can become difficult if it is revealed that two or more individuals have claim to the work as far as copyright is concerned.


A few readers have asked, "Can a collection of paintings be registered together even if they are technically not a series?" Based on what I know -- yes. True, the majority of painters I've known over the years create series paintings in advance of planning for an upcoming exhibit. In other words, they create the painting series knowing that eventually they will exhibit the collection as a whole. With that in mind, it may make more sense for those artists to register a series as a collection with the US Copyright Office. However, artists who create paintings that are not series focused can also register a collection of work -- just remember that common sense wins the day.


If you are going to register a collection of images it is best to stick to a general 'series theme'. In other words, if you plan to register a collection of images involving landscapes along with images of flowers it would make more sense, in my humble opinion, to register the landscape images together as a collection and the flower images as a collection. You may not have thought of all of your landscape paintings as a series -- but for this situation it may benefit you to think on those terms as far as registration is concerned. If anything, it will help you to keep track of what you have registered later. Try to stick to a general series theme as much as you can.


Why is copyright registration of a collection of images a good choice for artists? As mentioned earlier -- it is a cost effective way to register artwork in general. Point blank -- why pay individual fees for registration of the images when you can simply register them as a collection for the same -- in general -- cost. By all means, if you can afford to register each image individually -- do it. That said, if you can't afford it... start thinking of a collection of works as a series -- even if they technically were not created as a series. Furthermore, if cost is an issue -- simply add that cost to the price of your paintings.


Why should artists register their images with the US copyright Office? This is the way I see it... if you believe in your art enough to list it for sale online or to place it for sale in a brick & mortar art gallery you should, in my humble opinion, believe in those images enough to include additional protection for them. At the least registration can serve as 'proof' that you are indeed the creator of the work. In the extreme... registration can help you to protect the market for your art and the investment that your collectors have made by purchasing your work.


In closing, I'm not a copyright expert by any means. That said, I have had a lot of interest in copyright -- and have studied it extensively over the last 7 years. I strongly suggest that you devote some time to researching copyright for yourself-- especially if you plan to list your art for sale or market specific images. Visit the US Copyright Office website... it is a good start.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Related Posts:

When Copyright Infringers Become Victims... Part 1 - The Corporate Angle

Copyright Registration: Protecting Yourself as Well as Your Collectors

How do we protect our copyrighted images on the Internet?

Don't Fear The Copycats

Appropriation Art Meets De-Appropriation Art -- An Art Movement Born?

Is it OK for Other Websites to Use Your Copyrighted Images?

Protecting Copyrighted Images Revisited

Topics: art law | art marketing | Brian Sherwin | copyright | FineArtViews 

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Wow what a great post i have found some good information in yours post keep posting .
and Thanks you for sharing such a useful information.

Lou McCall
great article thank you! I like your definition of 'unpublished work... "unpublished -- have not appeared in a newspaper or magazine" my copyright attorney who gave me this link describes it differently:

“Publication” is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.

Brian Sherwin
I'll try to send you some links tonight... much of what I know comes from interaction I had with one of Manhattan's top attorneys on art-related matters... and others have confirmed the same interpretation of law. The copyright office website also points to the same concept.

I mean, your attorney is basically saying that if you post an image online it is 'published'. Yes, that might be the wording we use when we post online... but it does not have the same legal meaning based on what I've been told over the years.

Wow what a great post i have found some good information in yours post keep posting .Thanks

Karen Baker Thumm
I've talked with the copyright office a couple of times and was told twice by them that putting your art on the internet is still a "gray area"; in other words not officially considered publication.

If you make prints or notecards of your paintings and want to register them as a collection, you have to sell them together as a group. In other words, you could make up a pack of assorted cards of flowers or puppies or whatever and sell them together as a pack. If you also want to do prints of that same group, then I would register them first and then make the prints - and/or the notecards. Once they're registered, you can sell them individually. That goes for the originals, too.

I have often registered artwork as a collection based on a time frame of creation. Thus, I might title the collection, "Collected works of 2009" Or, you could register them based on a show you plan to have and give the collection the title of the show.

I haven't been over to the copyright office in a few years nor have I done any recent reading on it. But I don't believe these guidelines have changed, based on a little bit of reading here and there.

Thank you for your post Brian. I am concerned that your advice is just more cost for the 'struggling' artist. It is very difficult to find all the people that may copy and steal an artists work online. Even if the artist has paid to copyright it. Good luck finding all the copiers, if any. I agree that watermarks distract from the art itself and right click disabling is quite easy to get around as well. Seems difficult to protect our art work no matter what we do. At least right clicks don't cost each time you add an image to your site. Thoughts?

Karen Thumm
Monica, you don't have to pay to copyright your artwork. It's copyright protected from the moment you create it. What you do have to pay to do is register it with the US Copyright Office.

And, if you register your art as a collection, there is one flat charge for the whole collection which is much cheaper than registering each painting.

There is no way we can ever find every instance of our art being infringed online. But, it's surprising how often we do come across our work on someone else's site or a friend of ours sees it and lets us know. I feel it's much better to have the extra protection that registration affords us as artists when we do find infringements that we CAN do something about. We are not entirely powerless. I have notices on my website that all work is registered with the Copyright Office. I think that may be a deterrent to some, but others just won't care.

If we just give up and do nothing to protect our creative works, we are losing the battle before it begins.

Brian Sherwin
Monica -- Karen nailed it. As for the expense... think in terms of how much you spend on other things. The average person spends hundreds per year on coffee / soda. Make some cuts backs and you should have no trouble affording the registration fees. It may be worth it in the end.

Also, you have to register the images before you can pursue a copyright infringer in court. Thus, you might as well register them before the infringement occurs -- that way you have access to huge damages that you would not have if you register after the fact.

Keep in mind that the US Copyright Office is currently exploring Copyright Small Claims as well. If that happens it will be more affordable to go after 'small time' infringers.

You can register a whole set of different images if they are published at the same time.Instead of paying $35 for each image, the set is registered for $35 total. I have different sets of notecards, with 8 designs. The first designs all have copyright for one year and when I marketed new sets, they all had the new year and I paid $35 more. If you publish them online at the same time, it also holds true. So, that is good news. I talked to a copyright attorney who set everything up the first time.

Thank you everyone for the great information! Do any of you know how copyright works if the person who steals from you doesn't live in the US but in a different country? I live in Canada so am not sure what the laws are here and if I would have to copy right here as well as the US. Brand new to all of this so really do appreciate your input. :)

Brian Sherwin
Monica -- Last I checked you can register in the US even if you are not a US citizen. A lot of countries, 165 to be exact, adhere to the Berne Convention -- so they share similarities in dealing with copyright. I'll ask some legal eagles about how international infringement is handled.

I do know that you would be powerless in some situations -- for example, if a company in China uses your images without permission you would probably be hard-pressed to do anything about it. BUT you could block that company from offering merchandise in US / Canadian stores and you would likely be able to shut down US access to the merchandise website hosting the images if they refuse a take down notice under the DMCA.

Karen Thumm
Lou, I don't understand you talking about copyright protecting your images for only one year. Or, did you mean register them? I thought once the art is registered it's registered for eternity or as long as the Copyright Office and archives exist. Copyright itself lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years.

There seems to be a lot of confusion in the minds of many artists about the differences between copyright protection and registering the copyrights you already own in your own work. So many seem to think that registration IS copyright protecting their work.

Also, you can register a group of images together as a unit without publishing them at all. If you publish them and THEN register them, they have to have been published together as a unit. I ran into this when I first registered a lot of my older works. Some I could register together because I had first published the notecard versions together in an assortment pack. That took care of that.

Fitzgerald Dennison Sr
I believe the work of art is a beautiful thing am I working up the street of life also the Tree of Life which is my family tree to all rap artists stay good at what you do. Sincere your angel love Fitzgerald Denison senior

Thanks for the information.
I have a piece of info that is helpful in finding copies of images online. Go to "," drag the file containing your image into the provided field. It will search the internet for matching images, date posted and their locations.


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