Art and Copyright

When I first started becoming interested in art and collecting, I was talking to local wildlife painter about his work. There was a work that I thought my wife would like, but I also noticed that he had several prints of the same piece, some different sizes, different frames, different matting, etc. I asked him about what happens when someone buys the original. Did just stop making prints?

The answer was very resolute. One would have to pay him a lot more than the price of the original for the copyright to a work. Many collectors don’t consider who actually owns the rights to a particular work. Is it different if I buy from a gallery, buy directly from the artist, or commission a work? Who would I even talk to about something like that?

I’m not a lawyer. I have talked to several artists and friends who are lawyers, though. In general, the artist retains the copyright to any work they sell. That has implications for some of the things a collector can do with their art. First off, this means you can’t just make copies of the art you buy and sell it. You have to have specific permission to do so. Second, if you have, say, a blog about collecting art, you need permission to post images of that art on your site. If you don’t have permission, the artist can legally force you to remove those images, even if you never intended to violate the copyright. Third, it means that artists have no restrictions on selling prints of that work. They can sell as many as they want in whatever venue they want.

As a collector, I want the artists I collect to be successful. If that means that they make prints and sell them, I’m happy for them. What some collectors worry about, however, is the monetary value of their art. After all, if I buy the original for thousands, but hundreds of others buy the print for hundreds, doesn’t that devalue my original? Maybe. But, if a work becomes very popular, raising the prestige of that artist, which then increases the demand for that artist’s work, it could also make the original art more valuable. After all, how many prints and posters of American Gothic are there? Same with works from Picasso or Monet. Do you see the price of their originals drop because of it?

Ultimately, my advice is not to worry about artists selling prints of originals you buy. But, you should be aware of the owners of copyright. If nothing else, it is polite to ask to post images of their work. I’ve never had an artist tell me no. Most are happy for the recognition.