Even after an artist in California sells a painting or sculpture to someone else, the artist still owns the rights to images of the work of art. In other words, no one but the artist who made the art may publish a photo of it. However, artists can give away or sell permission to publish images of their art for commercial or noncommercial uses.
Museums that house art pieces created by thousands of different artists can have a difficult time dealing with copyright law. Before a museum can publish images of art on a website or in a book, it must obtain permission to do so from every single artist. Some artists give permission to publish their work freely while others charge for the rights. Museums usually require full-time employees to be responsible for handling copyright issues.
Recently, one artist's foundation caused a buzz in the art world by announcing that it would allow free use of its works for almost all noncommercial uses. The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which makes around $100,000 per year in licensing fees, will now make dramatically less money by allowing images of the late artist's work to be used for free. Rauschenberg's son, who is the president of his father's foundation, said that allowing the work be used freely will result in the work being more widely disbursed.
Every artist's relationship to copyright law is different. Depending on how they want their work displayed, some artists may want to give free permission for images of their work to be used while others may want to be asked for permission in every case. A lawyer can help clients protect their intellectual property by obtaining and enforcing copyrights of their work.