It is important to know that copyright nearly always rests with the artist, regardless of who owns or holds the original artwork. There are exceptions to this rule, such as work that has been specifically commissioned or completed during employment, in which case copyright stays with the company of the employee. 

If an artist sells a picture through a gallery to a private client, neither the gallery nor the final owner of the work has the right to reproduce it, e.g. as a greetings card. A painting and the copyright in that painting are two entirely separate commercial entities. With some exceptions, such as China, copyright is now fairly standard around the world: it lasts for the artist’s lifetime and for seventy years after their death. So long as works are in copyright anyone wishing to reproduce them has to seek the copyright holder’s permission. Artists can, however, sell their copyright. Sales of copyright must be put in writing by the artist ; otherwise sales are invalid and cannot be legally enforced.

Galleries and publishers are generally entitled to reproduce an artist’s work in order to help sell it – through advertisements, catalogues, JPEGs for emailing to clients and uploading onto their website – but they are not entitled to profit from reproductions of an artwork.

Reproduction rights

The artist or owners of the copyright can sell reproduction rights, or a licence to print, for specific projects while still retaining copyright. For example, an artist can sell the right to reproduce a picture on a run of 20,000 calendars or a dinnerware service while retaining overall copyright.

This allows them to sell further licences, whereas once full copyright is sold the artist has no say in how that image is used. Licensees might, quite reasonably, want to prevent licensors from selling licences to their direct competitors (e.g., other card publishers), so they might want to include restrictive clauses in the contract. They might, for example, want to state that the licensor agrees not to sell a licence to another card publisher, but is free to sell licences into other markets.

An artist will consider any restrictive clauses carefully; try to assess whether the proposed restriction is likely to deny them any future revenue.

The licensee is the party who has bought the licence, or permission to print, while the licensor is the person who has sold it (generally the artist).


Selling permission to print

The artist will be 100% clear what type of permission to print you have agreed, and what restrictions on future commercial activity the sale might entail. If you do not understand the terminology used in the contract or agreement, ask for an explanation of its implications.


There are three common categories of sale for copyright and reproduction rights:

  1. Artists sell copyright outright. They have no control over the ways in which images are subsequently used, and the new owner of the copyright is free to sell licences as they see fit and to retain all the profits. (Sometimes, however, agreement is reached that copyright will be sold but royalties will still be paid to the artist.)

  2. Artists sell copyright for a specific limited purpose; neither artist nor publisher can use the image for any other purpose. For example, if the image is published as a limited-edition print it can never be used for anything else, either by the artist or the print publisher.

  3. Artists sell reproduction rights, or a licence, for a specific limited purpose; the artist retains copyright and can continue to profit from it. For example, the artist sells the image for use on a set of table mats, but can then go on to sell it for other uses.

It is an ethical norm in the fine art reproduction industry that images which have been used for limited-edition prints will not be used for any other purpose or reprint. This commitment may be reinforced by a statement at the bottom of the print or on a certificate of authenticity. This needs to be clearly addressed when agreeing a contract .