Who owns the copyright on commissioned work?

| Feb 27, 2020 | Copyright Law

Generally speaking, a copyright is automatically granted to an artist as soon as they create a work. This could be a painting or a photograph or a song, for instance. Once it has been created, the work is theirs and cannot be used by anyone else without their permission.

But what if someone else commissions the work or pays for it to be made? Does the creator still have the copyright?

As you may have guessed, they typically do not. These are known as “works made for hire” and the copyright goes to the person who commissioned it and paid for it. The work belongs to them, as it never would have been made without their financial backing. For this reason, a person commissioned to paint a portrait cannot then sue the person who ordered it when they decide to use it in some fashion. The artist gave up their rights in exchange for payment.

Another way that this works is when an employee creates something. The company that the person works for, if they created the work as part of their employment, may then hold the copyright.

Furthermore, it is possible to transfer one’s copyright to someone else. An artist may make a creation, hold the initial copyright, and then sell it to a third party. This is essentially the same as a work for hire, though they simply make it before selling it, rather than the other way around.

Copyright issues can get complex when ownership is unclear. All involved have to know their legal rights if there is a dispute.