Can I copyright my paintings, sculptures or other visual art as a group to save money?

For visual artists the idea of individually copyrighting each work in your collection may seem arduous and expensive. The good news is there are several ways to register ‘groups’ of artistic work in copyright. One of the ways visual artists working with physical pieces of art can register multiple pieces of art on one application with one filing fee is by registering as a “collection of unpublished works.” Under this category, there is no restriction on how many pieces of art you can register in the collection.  However, the art must be related to each other in some way because you will need to describe the collection by a single title. There are three basic requirements in order to register your art as collection of unpublished works.

Basic requirements for registering a collection of unpublished art.

1- You will need to list out the individual pieces of art on the application, which is explained in ‘Step by Step instructions for registering online.’
2- The group of art will need a collection title. This will be the title the Copyright Office keeps in its records.
3- You need to be the creator for each piece of art you are registering.  You cannot add a piece of art someone else makes to the group.

Photo "London Artists Studio 2" licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license by Thor

Ok my artwork must be unpublished to be registered as a group, what does “unpublished” mean?
Unpublished means that you have not offered to sell or already sold the piece of art. You can still register published pieces of art but you cannot combine them into a group on one application. You will have to fill out a separate application and pay a separate application fee for each published work you register.

How does this effect the way I market my art before I register it?
You can only register multiple pieces of art under one application if they are unpublished. This means discussing the sale of a piece of art, showing a potential buyer your portfolio, or creating a website to display and sell your art are all ways you can “publish” your work.   Therefore, if your aim is to maximize your protection and minimize upfront costs of registering, you may want to register your art first as a group and then begin marketing. However, there are a few unique exceptions to when a work is considered published:

  • If only one piece of that particular piece of art exists, and you have not and do not plan on making copies of this art, you can sell it in a ‘traditional way’ through an art dealer, gallery or auction house. This will not be considered ‘published.’
  • If you publicly display your art it is not published.  However, if you offer to distribute copies of your art for someone else to distribute or display, like a retailer, it is published. 

These exceptions are mainly focused on sales of unique pieces of art. Provided you do not intend to make copies of your art, you can register your work even after it is sold or shown in a traditional gallery setting.

How long does my art need to remain “unpublished”?

Remember if you want to register a group of art on one application each one has to be unpublished. Therefore, you should not sell or display your art outside of a traditional gallery setting until you have completed your application and sent it in with the filing fee.  However, you do not have to wait until you receive the registration certificate to start selling or sharing your work outside of these settings. Your art will be protected by copyright law even before you get the certificate, but you will need the certificate if you want to file a copyright infringement lawsuit and seek certain damages and attorneys fees.  Remember that if your application and filing fee are submitted correctly you should get the date the copyright office received the application as your registration date.

That sounds great! But how do I register my work?

You can register online or mail in your application. If you register online it will take 3-6 months before it is accepted and the fee per application is $55. If you mail in your application it will take about 10 months and the fee per application is $85.  Since the price is less and the online application makes it easier to register a collection of unpublished works, we have described this process in detail below. However, you can still choose to fill out the paper application and mail it in.

Step by Step instructions for registering online:

  • GO to the Copyright Office online application AKA ‘eCO’:
  • Register as a new member. Once you have registered, login.
  • Under ‘Copyright Registration’ (list on the left side of the page) select ‘Register a New Claim’
    • You will be asked 3 questions.
      • Q: ‘I am registering one work?'  A: NO- you are registering a group of unpublished works
      • Q: ‘The work being registered was created by one person.’ A: YES (assuming you are the only one making these pieces of art)
      • Q:‘Copyright in the work is solely owned by the person who created it’ A: YES (assuming you are the owner and creator)
  • You will then fill out the application which has 11 parts.  Below is a guide for how to fill in the application as a collection of unpublished titles.
  • Part 1- Type of work: select Work of the Visual Arts
  • Part 2- Titles: this is where you will list the collection title and each piece of art within the collection.
    • Step 1: register the title of the collection. This is the overall title that each individual piece of art will fit into.
      • Select ‘New’
      • Title Type: select Title of Work Being Registered
      • Title of this work: give the collection a title. The title should describe the collection but don’t be too specific.
    • Step 2: register each individual piece of art.
      •  Select ‘New’
      •  Title Type: select Contents Title
      • Title of this work: Give the individual piece of art a name or description (only name one piece of art at a time).
    •  Step 3: Repeat ‘Step 2’ for each individual piece of art that fits within the group title. You can register as many pieces of art as you want under one collection title, there is no limitation. BUT you must have all the pieces of art for the group created and ready to register at this time. You cannot add to this group after your application is submitted and you cannot register pieces of art you have not yet created.
  • Part 3- Publication/Completion: you will be asked if the work is published, answer ‘NO’ (assuming this is true).
    • Remember the only way to register multiple designs under one application and with one fee is if they are all unpublished. If you have published a piece of art as described above, by selling it, offering to sell it, or giving it to someone else to sell or display outside of a traditional gallery setting  for example, you will need to register it on a separate application.
  • Part 4- Authors: You are creating the art so you can select ‘Add me’. You will also be asked what type of work. You will choose visual art.
  • Part 5- Claimants: The author (creator) of the art is the original claimant. If you created the art and have not transferred any rights to the art you can select ‘Add Me’
  • Part 6- Limitation of Claim: Unless the designs you are registering contain part of a past registration or published material you can skip this section by selecting ‘continue.’ If you reuse copyrighted work in your art, you must list it here.
  • Part 7- Rights and permissions: select ‘Add Me’
  • Part 8- Correspondent: select ‘Add Me’
  • Part 9- Mail Certificate: select ‘Add Me’
  • Part 10- Special Handling: This section will probably not apply to you. Skip it by selecting ‘Continue.’
  • Part 11- Certification: follow the instructions on the page to agree and sign the application.
  • Check out: When you checkout the fee should be $55. You should see one ‘Title of Work Being Registered’ which is the collection title name. The individual titles you listed under ‘Contents Title’ will not be shown on the checkout page. And you're done!

The above instructions are assuming you are the only creator of these pieces of art. If this changes you will need to add the other authors and claimants to the application. If you have specific questions while you are filling out the application you can call the Copyright office: (877) 476.0778 (9am-5pm Eastern time).

If you have any questions about registering works of visual art or copyright issues related to your visual art, feel free to contact New Media Rights via our contact form to find out whether you qualify for free or reduced fee legal services. We also offer competitive full fee legal services on a selective basis. For more information on the services we provide click here.

** Special thanks to New Media Rights Legal Intern Kristine Stcynske for helping to create this Copyright FAQ**

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