Working with Royalty-Free Artwork

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| January 18, 2008

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You asked your legal, copyright, and trademark questions, and Jean has answered! All questions are culled from the comments section attached to the original ‘Ask Jean’ post. We invite you to ask more questions.

Hi Jean,

I am a graphic designer, and I recently designed some stationery, cards, and invitations based on royalty-free artwork. It has come to my attention that other designers are also using the same royalty-free artwork. Some of our pieces are similar, though none are exactly the same. What can I do to protect my work? I can forsee a scenario in which five designers all use the same royalty- free piece of artwork, place the graphic at the center and top of a card, and set the invitation text near the bottom. If you place them side-by-side, they would look the same, but no one really copied anyone else. What do we as designers do in such a situation? How do we protect ourselves and our work?

Jennie

Dear Jennie,

If substantially similar work is created independently, there is no infringement. This is true according to the concept of independent origination. In the situation you describe, you’re not at risk, so you don’t really need protection. That said, you may be able to obtain a copyright for the derivative work you have created, if you added something original to the royalty-free artwork. However, the copyright will only apply to the new and original additions. I recommend registering the copyright for the newly created designs. Registering doesn’t provide a lot of protection in this situation, because the copyright doesn’t cover the artwork, but it is at least something to fall back on.

Best,
Jean

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