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If you’re a self-employed visual artist, photographer, filmmaker, writer, musician, or other creative worker, you can benefit from understanding the legal side of your work.
Business structure, copyright issues, and contracts terms will affect how you protect your work from copycats and plagiarism, as well as how you deal with potential partners, clients, or employers.
As always, if you have specific questions, contact a business lawyer.
Consider registering as a business as soon as you start generating work that you intend to sell, especially if you share a copyright with others. However, your original artistic creations are protected by copyright whether or not you have started a business.
You cannot legally operate as a business without being fully licensed and registered in the locations where you operate. As a registered business, you can also deduct business expenses, like studio space, cost of art supplies, and travel to shows, from your personal or business taxable income.
Sole proprietorship: Many artists start out as sole proprietors, a business set-up that is logistically simple but exposes you to some liability issues. Sole proprietorships cannot have employees or partners, and the owner is personally liable for business debts and legal issues.
LLC: A limited liability company (LLC) is a more flexible business structure. LLCs can hire employees and can have one or more members. Individual owners are protected from personal liability for business debts or legal issues. You typically pay taxes on income from the LLC on your personal tax return.
Many collaborators on creative works, such as films, make a multi-member LLC for each project. Entertainers, such as actors and musicians, may choose to create a “loan-out” business, either a corporation or LLC, to simplify the hiring process for each project.
See LLC vs. S-Corp vs. C-Corp for more information on comparing business structures. Remember that an experienced business lawyer can recommend the best business structure for your unique situation.
Follow this checklist to guide you through the process for starting a business as an LLC. You can usually register any business structure online through your state's Secretary of State or equivalent. Business licensing is a separate step, and license requirements vary according to state and local law.
When you're ready to get started, talk to a local business attorney to help you start your single-member LLC.
Intellectual property includes original artistic creations, business brands and logos, images, inventions, and other creations generated by your mind. The legal protections for such original creations include patents, copyrights, and trademarks. You can protect your artistic work from unauthorized reproduction or plagiarism through copyright.
Copyright laws protect the following types of creative and artistic works:
Ideas or concepts on their own aren't copyrightable, but specific expressions of an idea are. A copyright owner has the exclusive right to distribute or sell the work, prepare derivative works, perform or display the work publicly, and authorize others to do any of the preceding.
Establishing a copyright on your creative works doesn't mean you have to register with the US Copyright Office. Your work just has to be “fixed,” meaning that simply writing down, photographing, filming, recording, or otherwise creating your work is enough to give you a copyright.
You don't need a registered copyright to use the © copyright symbol. Including copyright notices in any form of your work may help prevent plagiarism. In addition, you should carefully back up digital copies of all your copyrighted works for your own protection.
Web series. YouTube videos are copyrighted upon recording. You can put copyright notices in the video and in the video description to make ownership clear. Copyright dance/choreography works by recording a video performance, or writing out the steps in detail. You can copyright an arrangement of dance steps, but not a particular move.
Music. Recording a song in audio or writing down its lyrics and/or musical arrangement gives it copyright law protection. Blog posts are copyrighted, like all other written works, once they are written. On collaborative blogs or websites where each writer owns their contributions, each post should specify the copyright holder.
Visual art. Copyright on visual works such as paintings, web graphics, or photos is likewise established upon their creation. To display copyright, you can include watermarks or other copyright notices on any images you share with others, or insert a copyright notice into the metadata of any digital image file you create.
You can register a copyright on any work you own, although registration is most useful for popular artists, artists with an easily recognizable style, or artists who work in mediums, such as digital photography, where copyrights are frequently infringed.
Register by submitting your work, a form, and a fee to the US Copyright Office. Registering gives you a permanent public record of your copyright, which can help in any legal claims against you. Registering your copyright also gives you legal standing to file any necessary copyright infringement lawsuits.
If you register your copyright within 5 years of publication, your copyright's validity and the validity of the facts stated on the registration certificate will be accepted prima facie (on its face, or at first look) by a court handling any copyright infringement case.
If you don't copyright your work within 3 months after creation or prior to the copyright infringement, then you can only sue for the amounts of money lost by you and gained by the copyright violator. If you do copyright within that period, you can also sue for additional statutory damages and attorney's fees.
Freelance artists may sign contracts with clients stating that their work is “for hire.” Employees often also have “work for hire” or “work product” clauses in their employment agreements.
Under such contracts, the work you create for the client belongs to them. You have to get specific permission to include any version of this work in your portfolio or otherwise claim that the work is yours. If you didn't sign such a clause, you may have a case to retain copyright and creative control of the work.
If you're unsure about the details of an agreement you're about to sign, get it reviewed by an experienced business attorney. They can make sure the document protects your best interests.
Under copyright law, to share a copyright, all creators must contribute tangible, recorded material to the work in question, not just ideas or concepts. Creators must also intend to share the credit for the work. To avoid future confusion or legal problems, all creators should sign a written copyright agreement.
When multiple parties work on creative works like a website or blog, you can choose how you assign copyright. LLC owners or employees may establish by an agreement that copyright is vested in the LLC, or that copyright is held by individuals for their individual contributions to the work.
Artists typically retain copyright to works created while studying at a university or art school. However, schools may reserve the right to reproduce student work for educational purposes. Also, student artwork that is financially sponsored may become school property. Consult your school or department's intellectual property policy for specifics.
Sole proprietorship Incorporation Employment law for businesses LLC (limited liability company) Intellectual property Copyrights Business Employment Lawsuits and disputes State, local, and municipal law Starting a business Tax return