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Good Business Practices: Protecting Your Artwork On The Internet

With today’s technology, artists are no longer constrained to showing their work in galleries. Exhibiting your art on the Internet literally opens up a whole world of potential clients. But at what risk? The Rickie Report welcomes Attorney Matthew Harrison, as he writes this Guest Column about protecting your artwork on the Internet.  Matthew Harrison is a leading expert on the legal issues regarding photography and other visual arts. His specialties include copyright and trademark matters, release forms, and the potential legal pitfalls of using the Internet for self promotion. While he maintains a practice in Massachusetts, all of the topics written about either apply nationally or are specifically written for the Florida artist.  




Protect yourself while getting the most out of the promotional opportunities

By Matthew B. Harrison, esq.


How many of you display your work on your own website? Facebook? Tumblr? Pinterest? Twitter? Instagram?




The Internet can be an amazingly inexpensive way for you, as a artist, to 1) be able to showcase your work and 2) hopefully bring in potential business through these self-promotional efforts. However, before you run out and post your work everywhere, I would like you to think about protecting yourself and your property, so that you do not end up falling into the group that answers affirmatively to the next question.




Of those who do display their work online – how many of you have had the pleasant experience of surfing the web and seeing your artwork somewhere without your permission? It may not happen for all artists… but it happens to visual artists more than any of us would like to admit. You need to be aware of this phenomenon so that you can adequately protect yourself.



As a point of reference, this article is about non-commercial use of the image by an unauthorized party as opposed to a commercial use. Unauthorized commercial use is an entirely different animal and may be outlined in future articles.

Here’s one example… shifting point of view to the viewer.


Pretend for a minute that you are not the intelligent and informed reader of The Rickie Report that you are, but instead are “my cousin Vinny.” While he may think he is of sound legal mind, he is not a lawyer. He’s just a normal guy who doesn’t really know much about anything – and even less about technology. He may know what a computer is – but his main purpose for using it is the access to free adult material.



So while I can write about copyright protection until the cows come home, and declare by edict that materials on the Internet cannot be used without permission – do you think that “my cousin Vinny” is going to listen to what I am talking about – let alone follow by my words? Not a chance – even if I had a scantily clad model holding up a giant sign.



But Vinny! You are committing a copyright violation by taking that image off someone else’s website and posting it on your page – or sending it out via email to your buddies – or even using it on your desktop as a background image. His actual response: (after the shut up kid… you bother me) “Hey… I got it for free on the Internet… If they didn’t want me to have it, why would they put it out there?”


What Vinny is trying to get at is a fair use argument. Does his justification have merit? Perhaps. That’s a simplistic look. It gets complicated. What about the budding photographer who shoots a wedding inexpensively thinking that some of the cost will be made up in print sales, and the bride and groom don’t order prints and take the web sized proof images that they feel they paid for and put them all over Facebook.


Is it appropriate to put online / social network usage as a separate line item in an invoice?

What is fair use?



Fair use is a copyright principle based on the belief that the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. For example, if you wish to criticize a novelist, you should have the freedom to quote a portion of the novelist’s work without asking permission. Absent this freedom, copyright owners could stifle any negative comments about their work.



So what is Fair Use? The only guidance is provided by a set of fair use factors outlined in the copyright law. These factors are weighed in each case to determine whether or not a specific use qualifies as a fair use. For example, one important factor is whether the potentially infringing use will deprive the copyright owner of income. It seems straight forward, but unfortunately, weighing the fair use factors is often quite subjective. For this reason, the fair use road map is often tricky to navigate.



The Fair Use statute: The doctrine of fair use developed over the years as courts tried to balance the rights of copyright owners with society’s interest in allowing copying in certain, limited circumstances. This doctrine has at its core a fundamental belief that not all copying should be banned, particularly in socially important endeavors such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, and research. Under the Act, four factors are to be considered in order to determine whether a specific action is to be considered a “fair use.”



These factors are as follows:

• The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
• The nature of the copyrighted work;
• The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
• The effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.



So getting back to Vinny – if a work is freely available on the internet – making a copy will have little or no effect on its market simply because no commercial market for the work has been established or claimed… and that is not good for the photographer or artist who gets ripped off from someone like Vinny. It means that as long as you were not selling the particular image copied (in the form that was copied) whoever did the copying has a pretty strong argument for a fair use defense.



Getting back to the Facebook example – if a person’s usage is only on their Facebook profile, and it’s the same web sized image that had been presented to them as a proof, it would be hard to argue that the intent was copyright protection. So how do you protect yourself from falling into the trap of a fair use argument?



While I hate to say this because as an artist myself the following advice pains me…

An artist NEEDS to identify their work and claim the value of it on their website. One way to identify the owner of the work is to watermark the image; and if you really want to protect yourself at the cost of devaluing the overall aesthetic of the image – the watermark should be towards the center of the image so that it cannot be cropped off. By doing this – it is painfully obvious that the work belongs to someone.


By offering licensing to use the image, or making the image for sale in the form of a print on your website, you are evidencing actual financial value to the image on the site – and to any reproduction made by the image. This will, in the least, provide you with an argument against a proposed fair use defense that an infringer may have.



Matthew B. Harrison, an entertainment and media attorney, is a senior partner with the Harrison Legal Group based in Springfield, Massachusetts.

He can be reached by phone at 413-565-5413 or e-mailed at

You can also see some of his adventures and explorations with fine art photography at   

He can be reached via the web



For coverage of your events, to place an advertisement, or speak to Rickie about appearing in The Rickie Report, contact:

Rickie Leiter, Publisher

The Rickie Report

P.O.Box 33423

Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33420


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