Tips to License Your Art in New York

What the intellectual property laws say and how to make money under them

“Every artist's story is unique,” says New York intellectual property attorney Amy Lehman. Lehman is the director of legal services at Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA), a nonprofit that advocates for artists and offers educational programs about copyright and contracts, so artists can learn how to make a living.

“The way for artists to get compensated for their art is either to sell their work or to license,” she says. “Everyone from musicians to fine artists are licensing images in various ways.”

It was discovered that one of Lehman’s friends, a performer, had been filmed while sitting and talking in Central Park. The filmmakers, who posted their video on YouTube, didn’t ask for her consent to be in their film. There’s a difference between getting accidentally caught in the film and the filmmaker zooming in on you and recording conversation, Lehman says. Fortunately, her friend was able to contact the filmmakers and get them to cut her out. It is not as easy in other circumstances.

The U.S. Copyright Statute says that “works that are not fixed in a tangible form” or “improvisational speech that has not been written down” do not have protection under copyright. Other works of art, such as literary, musical, graphic, audiovisual, and even architectural works can be copyrighted and licensed by artists.

“They can license them to one corporation or one individual for exclusive use or nonexclusive use,” Lehman says. “If a corporation is looking to license an image—let’s say, Nike wants to license an image that a photographer took in an advertisement—they might limit that license for one year, because after a year they’re not going to keep using the same ad. Or they might want it forever. So what the artist can charge will vary based on the terms of that license agreement.”

Deals often depend upon what the parties are interested in and what they want to get out of it, according to Lehman. Artists may feel like they’ve encountered a one-shot opportunity, and no one else is going to want to license their work in the future. Some companies pay more money for long-term deals. Lehman says a license can also be limited to a geographic area.

She advocates for artists to understand art as part of the entertainment business. “The only way for artists to make a living is to be able to monetize their art,” she says. “Many artists are not getting great training. … They go out in the world and they work for free or they think, ‘Oh, this is my opportunity. I’ll just do it for nothing now and they’ll pay me later,’ and then they never really are able to do it as a business. Art is a business. But art isn’t treated that way.”

A license agreement, like any contract, has termination clauses or ways out of it if someone is not complying with the terms of the agreement. If you need assistance negotiating a license or believe that your license has been breached, reach out to an experienced intellectual property attorney.

If you’re concerned someone may infringe or profit upon your original work, the best way to protect your rights is to register with the copyright office, says Lehman. You do not need a lawyer to register. You can go to the U.S. copyright office’s website and follow the instructions.

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