Copyright basics - make money from your creativity

In Part 1 of our series of articles on copyright for graphic designers, I introduced you to the basics of copyright – what it is, how it can be infringed and how to protect it.

In Part 2, I will look at the traditional ways you can make money from your creativity.

Copyright is like a picnic basket with different goodies inside. You may not want everyone to share everything in your basket, and instead you want to limit what they can and cannot do with your copyright. For example: you may allow one person to publish your work as is, while allowing another to adapt it and publish a new version.

You can also grant the same rights to people in different countries or geographical areas where you have copyright or give all of your rights away to one person who enjoys your copyright throughout the world.

Finally, you can limit the time period in which people can enjoy your rights. Think of the software you use and the annual subscription fees you pay to renew your licence rights.

There are 2 recognised legal ways you can grant rights in your work to others:

1.    By assignment; or

2.    By license.


Assignments are basically like the sale of your copyright to someone else. For as long as the person you assigned your rights to (the assignee) enjoys your rights, you cannot exercise them. The assignee is the new holder of the copyright and they, in turn, can assign or licence the rights onto someone else. If someone unlawfully infringes the copyright, it is the assignee who must enforce it.

Assignments can be limited to a particular country. For example, you can assign your copyright in the UK, but still enjoy it in the US. Assignments can also be limited to a particular period of time. Once the time period ends, the copyright reverts back to you as the original holder.

A valid assignment can only be carried out if there is an underlying agreement to assign your copyright and the assignment itself is reduced to writing and signed by you. It is always a good idea to draw up a contract setting out exactly what is being assigned and specifying if there are any limitations.

You can assign your future copyright in a work still to be designed. However the assignment will only be effective once the work has been born and is vested with copyright.

If you are assigning your copyright, you will usually be able to charge a higher price because you are limiting your ability to earn money from it in other ways.


A license is basically a promise from you, the copyright holder, not to sue the person holding the license (the licensee) when they exercise some or all of your copyright. Unlike with an assignment, you remain the owner and merely allow the licensee to exercise the right.

Copyright licensing is a bit like the design process itself – there are an infinite number of licence variations limited only by the creativity of the drafter.

Licenses can be exclusive, i.e. no-one but the licensee is allowed to enjoy the same rights for the period of the license; or non-exclusive where the same rights can be granted to various people.

Non-exclusive licenses don’t have to be in writing, and can be given verbally or even by conduct (E.g. if someone is using your work without your permission but you don’t object). Unless the license is specifically agreed to be non-revocable, you can take it away at any time. However if the terms of the license are that it is perpetual, then it cannot be terminated unless further agreement is reached or the licensee commits a breach of the license.

An exclusive license must be in writing and signed by you. If an exclusive license is not reduced to writing and signed, it becomes a non-exclusive license. The exclusive licensee has the right to take action against third parties for copyright infringement in his or her own name. Their right of action exists concurrently with your own right of action.

In Part 3 we will look at new forms of licensing which have been introduced to accommodate new ways of sharing content on the internet and across other digital platforms.

If you have any queries, leave a comment, contact Steve (steveatniccifergusondotcodotza) or post your question on the Myows Forums.