Copyright Protection and Graphic Design

By Chloe Kirby

Many designers do not spend a lot of time thinking about copyright protection, but just do their work creating designs and think that things like copyright law are for big businesses with expensive lawyers! As much as it might not be at the front of mind for some creative workers, copyright is important.

Copyright gives a creator exclusive rights to his or her work and it makes it easier to derive income from using their skills to create. Whether one runs a digital strategy agency or works as an independent graphic designer, copyright can affect this work.

What makes a design eligible for copyright protection?

In the United States, copyright law is outlined in Title 17 of the US Code. This section of the federal law outlines how copyright protection works and the factors that make a creative work eligible for copyright protection. Along with graphic designs, it can be used to protect the rights to music, literary works, photographs, films and more.

For a graphic design to be eligible for protection, it must meet two basic criteria: it must be original and fixed in a tangible form. For originality, it means the design must possess a minimum level of creativity. As it concerns being fixed, it means that the work must be in a state that allows it to be observed, appreciated or reproduced in some way.

How does ownership work?

In most cases, the design belongs to the creator. If two or more people work to create a design together, they would then share ownership of the design. However, there is an exception for work made for hire.

If a designer creates something under the scope of an employment agreement, the ownership of the design likely falls to the employer. If a designer is independently commissioned to create a design, this may also affect ownership. In this case, the language of the contract may express that one party or the other retains the rights to the finished work. (If there is no contract, the independent designer retains the copyright.)  The owner of a design can also transfer the rights to any other party by contract.

What comes with owning the rights to a design?

When you own the rights to a design, it is legally yours to use. This provides the copyright owner with several benefits.

As it concerns graphic design, it gives the owner the exclusive right to reproduce and distribute the work. It also gives you the right to create derivative works based on the design. It also means you can sell the rights to the design or license it for the use of others.

While the rights to the design do belong to the copyright holder, there are exceptions that might allow others to use it in certain ways. There is a legal doctrine known as fair use in the US that may allow the design to be used for things like commentary, criticism, news reporting, teaching and more.  Other countries have other exceptions that may apply in limited cases.

Do I need to register my designs for copyright protection?

A work does not need to be registered for it to have copyright protection. In the US and elsewhere, a graphic design automatically gets copyright protection as soon as it is fixed in a tangible medium. With that said, copyright registration in the US can help to enhance your rights and increase protection.  (Registration is not required in other countries.)

You will need to register the work in the US if you ever need to enforce your rights, that is, if you ever plan to take someone to court for copying your designs. Registration can also help to establish that you do own the design if ownership is ever in dispute.

Thinking about copyright protection, documenting who owns the copyright, and taking registration or other steps to protect your work are important for designers, regardless how big or small their business is!


Chloe Kirby is a writer and digital marketing professional. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and her Master’s Degree at Goldsmiths University in London, England. Chloe has professional experience in e-commerce, digital marketing, and copywriting. For the last year she has been working in New York City.