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Who owns the copyright in your artwork?

Record companies have their acts strangely untogether when it comes to the copyright in their artwork. Even a small label owner could do it better...

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So you have made a CD. You got a friend to do the artwork for you and it looks pretty good. You release the CD on your own label and promote it well. It sells. A major label takes notice and wants to license your CD. But there's a problem. Your 'friend' who did the artwork is holding out for a massive fee from the label. You forgot to get him to sign over the copyright...

So coming to the point quickly, make sure to get anyone who contributes to your album to sign over copyright to you, whether paid for or not.

But now a story...

The ownership of copyright in the artwork of a record or CD is something that troubles the major labels too. A while ago I was writing a book called 'How to Become a Record Producer'. I wanted to feature panels alongside the main text titled 'Classic Album', each with a picture of the album in question and a couple of paragraphs of text.

The publisher of the book insisted that I get copyright clearance for all the artwork I used. If he had published without getting this clearance, then one complaint from a copyright owner could have meant the whole print run getting pulped.

So I went to the major labels who had released the albums I was interested in and asked for permission.

The general reaction was a kind of stupefied amazement as if no-one had ever asked them that before. Then they would pass me on to the legal department. It's funny how lawyers can be so uncommittal when they are faced with the responsibility of making a correct decision. So they would fob me off with 'explanations' that they wouldn't be able to trace the copyright owner, and that some covers might incorporate derivative works of other copyright owners. So basically the whole thing was impossible.

But plainly album covers get printed all the time. I asked a magazine what they did. They replied that they just printed what they liked without seeking permission. Well I suppose it gets the job done, although they are opening themselves up to risk.

Two record companies actually did have their act together. One - unfortunately I have forgotten which - asked for a $100 fee, which was far too much in this context. The other, the Beatles' record company Apple, simply refused point blank.

There is a work around however - fair use. If one is reviewing a product such as a book, one is allowed to quote from it. I don't see why this can't be extended to album covers and the artwork reproduced without permission or payment to support the review...

So, the cover of Sgt. Pepper? It's not bad.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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