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Since graphic design and media production is dependent on the reproduction of photographs, designs and other imagery, graphic designers and photographers need to understand the issues related to copyrights and usage rights. They are not the same thing.

(Note: although copyright and usage is an international issue, the topics discussed in this article pertain specifically to the U.S. and Canada, and for the most part, Europe. Other countries have varying laws and protection related to copyright. If you live outside the areas mentioned, you should find out about regulations where you live and/or do business.)


Under U.S. law, when a designer or photographer creates a work, with certain exceptions, a copyright is automatically assigned to the creator of the work. For example, if you take a photograph, you automatically own the copyright to that photo. If you use someone else’s camera, you still own the copyright. Same goes for graphic design: if you create a design, you own the copyright because you made the work.

The major (and very important) exception to this is work made-for-hire. If you are an employee of a company and you create work specifically for that company or its clients, unless specifically agreed otherwise, the person who paid you to do the work usually owns the copyright. This can also apply to contractors, however, in many cases, freelance graphic designers and photographers create agreements that specifically state the creator will own the copyright. If you are self-employed and doing work for clients, you absolutely should include a clause about copyright ownership in your contracts, otherwise, you may find yourself in disagreements about who owns the copyrights to the work. (Note that copyrights can legally be transferred to another entity.)

In the U.S., you can register creative works with the Library of Congress. If someone uses your work without permission, the only way you can realistically expect to recover monetary damages in court is if that work was registered with the copyright office prior to the unauthorized use. If you don’t register your work, you still own the copyrights, but the most you can do is force the unauthorized use to cease.

You can get lots of information about copyrights and register your work at

Usage Rights

Usage rights are different than copyrights. They are granted to a specific entity with specific conditions. For example, you, as the copyright holder, could assign to the client limited reproduction rights for the use of your design or photograph. Again, this must be spelled out in the contract. When you assign usage rights, the terms of the usage and the expiration date (if applicable) must be clearly defined. Common details to include in usage rights are the geographical area where the work will be available, the nature of the publication, the number of reproductions and the period of time for which the work is being licensed.

When you grant someone the right to use your work, a fee is usually appropriate. You can let someone else use your work for free or as part of a barter agreement. But even if you do not charge a fee, the terms of the use of your creative work product should always be spelled out very clearly, especially if you will retain the full copyright.

Public Domain

Certain creative works exist in the public domain; that is, they are freely available for anyone to use without restriction or cost. However, these are usually very old and commonly-known works that existed before copyright law came into effect and/or the term of their copyright has expired. In some cases, artists will allow their work to become part of the public domain; however, this is quite rare in modern times.

Creative Commons

Found mainly on the Internet, a Creative Commons license is a special type of unlimited use, free of charge, with certain restrictions. You can offer your work under a CC license, and you may come across other people’s work offered under this type of license. For more information visit the web site at

Using Someone Else’s Work

Just because you find something on the Web doesn’t mean you can use it for your own purposes. Even if a photo or design has no attribution (credit to the maker), and even if no copyright notice is visible, you absolutely should not assume you can legally use something you’ve found online (or anywhere else, for that matter).

Ethics in graphic design and photography is a hot-button topic. Unfortunately, people stealing others’ work happens all the time. To protect yourself, you can (and should) embed copyright metadata into your image and layout files. This will be covered in a future article on

As a graphic designer or photographer, I urge you to 1) follow the law, 2) live by the Golden Rule, and 3) educate yourself. If you are caught stealing someone else’s creative product you could face public humiliation, outrage, or much worse. If you find a photo or any other design element you want to use (including fonts) and information about usage is not provided, you must contact the creator and make proper arrangements. If you can’t accomplish this, you can’t use the work. Period.