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What is copyright?

CopyrightThis is a definition of copyright: ‘Copyright is the exclusive property right to permit or prevent copying of certain specified categories of subject matter’. (© Museums Association, August 2004)

There’s no need to register copyright: it exists automatically as soon as a painting is created. There’s no registration system for the artist, there are no forms to fill, and no fees to pay.

There’s a principle of copyright called the moral right which relates to the artist’s honour or reputation. There are three aspects of moral right:

Paternity right: The creator has the right to be named as creator of the work

False attribution right: The creator has the right to prevent being named as the creator of a work he/she didn’t create

Derogatory treatment right: The creator has the right to object to derogatory treatment of the work

How long does copyright last?

The easy rule to remember is, ‘Life plus 70 years’. If an artist died in 1941, his/her paintings will remain in copyright until 31st December 2011. On 1st January 2012 the paintings will fall out of copyright.

What happens if a collection holds copyright in a work?

If this is the case, and it’s unusual, the collection should if necessary be able to produce a signed letter or agreement from the artist or artist’s estate proving that copyright has been given to the collection. Please note that a collection cannot claim to hold copyright in a painting where the artist is now out of copyright, i.e. died more than 70 years ago.

Is there copyright in the photographic image as well as copyright in the actual painting?

Yes, there is. The photographer uses training and skill to photograph a painting and he or she holds copyright in that photographic image. However, as part of its agreement with collections, the PCF agrees that its photographers will hand over copyright in all their photographic images for collections’ own use.