Posted 19 January 2022
Mention Association of Illustrators
Illustration by Olivier Heiligers
Illustration by Tania Yakunova

What is copyright? Everything you need to know about licensing and protecting your work

What’s the most valuable thing you own as a creative? For The Association of Illustrators (AOI), the answer’s simple: it’s the copyright to your work. While for many, copyright can seem like a tricky topic to understand and navigate, it pays to be clued up. Here, as part of their current #KeepYourCopyright campaign, the AOI’s CEO Rachel Hill talks through some of the basics.

According to the AOI’s latest membership survey, 34% of illustrators say they don’t have a good understanding of licensing, and 44% don’t feel confident negotiating contract terms with clients. The AOI want to change that narrative by equipping illustrators with the tools they need to understand copyright and empower them to negotiate fair contractual terms.

With copyright assignments on the rise (more on that below), it’s never been more important for artists and creatives to protect their copyright and retain autonomy over their work. Signing away your copyright sets the expectation that other illustrators and creatives will do the same. So, what can we do to reverse this harmful practice before it becomes the norm?

Having the right information is key
For many, copyright can feel like an intimidating topic to discuss, particularly for those just starting out. But it’s much more straight forward than you might think. Read on as we explain what you need to know, so that you can celebrate your copyright in all its glory!

Keep Your Copyright campaign image by Olivier Heiligers

🤔 What is copyright?

Copyright is the legal right to copy or reproduce something.
When an artist creates an artwork, regardless of whether it was commissioned, they automatically own the copyright of that image, unless they assign it to somebody else. As the copyright owner, you are the only person who has the right to reproduce your work.

You automatically get copyright protection when you create an original artwork.
You don’t need to register for copyright or fill in any forms. Copyright laws vary around the world, but here in the UK copyright lasts for your whole lifetime, plus 70 years after that.

Copyright protects your intellectual property, which is separate to the physical artwork itself. So even if you sell an original drawing, you will still own the copyright in your work.

🤷 Why is it important to know about copyright?

Understanding copyright is super-important because it’s how illustrators and many other creatives make money. This is generally done by licensing your artwork to a client, which allows them to reproduce it for a specific purpose, like on a book cover or in an advertising campaign. By protecting your copyright and not giving it away, you can control how your work is used, and how much money you make from it!

Copyright protects the value of your work by allowing you to legally challenge anyone who uses or closely replicates your work without your permission. Because of this, copyright protection helps to foster a real sense of originality within the creative industries.

Illustration by Tania Yakunova

🧐 What is licensing?

When you grant a licence to a client, you give them permission to use your artwork in a certain way, but you still retain the copyright. A license can be “exclusive” meaning only one client can use the image while your licence lasts, or “non-exclusive” meaning that you can licence the image to several clients at one time.

When granting a licence, you and the client will agree on:

Territory: Where they can use the artwork geographically
Duration: How long they can use it for
Usage: What context they can use it in

Your quote will be based on the value of the licence you’re offering. This is a win-win because it means that the client is only paying for the uses that they need, and you get to control exactly how your artwork is used.

This doesn’t just apply to illustrators. Lots of other creative roles use a licensing model, such as photographers, musicians, and authors. Licensing is, however, more typical for freelance creatives. It’s important to note that if you are an employee of a company (as many designers are), the copyright in your work will belong to your employer. This is standard practice, as you have the payoff of a guaranteed regular income.

Illustration by Tania Yakunova

🚨 Be wary of copyright assignments

What is a copyright assignment?
Today, it’s becoming increasingly common for clients to request a copyright assignment. This is when you sign over all the rights to your work, and completely transfer its ownership to the client. As the new owner, the client will then be free to use the image in any way, for any length of time, anywhere in the world. A copyright assignment will only be effective if agreed to in writing, so always read your contracts.

With US clients you may be asked to sign a “work-for-hire” (or “work made for hire”) contract. Like a copyright assignment, this is an American legal term which means that the commissioner will own the copyright in the work rather than the creator.

Why can a copyright assignment be bad news?
With a copyright assignment, the client can make unlimited profit from your work without ever needing to pay you an extra penny. Essentially, signing away your copyright means you can’t make any further income from your work.

“When you sign over all the rights to your work, a client can make unlimited profit from your work without ever needing to pay you an extra penny.”

A creator should be compensated for all uses of an image. Of course, if a client is prepared to pay an appropriate fee to cover all potential uses, then a copyright assignment may be worth considering. As you can imagine, a suitable fee would be a substantial amount of money! But unfortunately, this is rarely offered. Many clients who are requesting a copyright assignment are not willing to pay any higher than they would for a much narrower licence. In most scenarios, agreeing to a copyright assignment will significantly undervalue your artistic works.

Another worrying element of an assignment is that, as the copyright owner, the client would be free to sell your work on to third parties. This means that your work could end up in the hands of an organisation that you would rather not be associated with.

For example, you could be an activist for veganism, and your illustration of an animal might end up being sold to a company that uses it on packaging for meat products. Ideally as creatives, we all want to keep control over who uses our images.

😨 What to do if a client wants your copyright

In a situation where a client suggests a copyright assignment, it’s best to have an open discussion about why a licence would be a more appropriate alternative for all parties involved.

For instance you could say:

“I’m not able to accept a copyright assignment, but am happy to grant the more typical licence based on the usage, territory, and duration you require. Please let me know how you plan to use the artwork, and I’ll suggest a licence that fully covers your needs.”

Remember some clients may be new to working with an illustrator, so unaware how licensing works. In these cases, it can be useful to share the AOI’s public, downloadable resource, How to Licence Illustration, to give them a clear and helpful introduction to the commissioning process.

Illustration by Tania Yakunova

🤝 Top tips for negotiating a fair deal

Some clients will push back on the idea of licensing, so it’s great to have some negotiation tactics up your sleeve.

For example, you could consider sending a “menu quote” that lists the substantial cost of a copyright assignment, in comparison to a more tailored licence fee. This can often encourage a client to reconsider if a copyright assignment is essential for the project, when a more affordable licence may still do the job. For more information on how to format a menu quote, check out the AOI’s new and extensive resource on copyright assignments.

Being nice and upfront is usually the best approach, and remember to always pitch licensing as a win-win scenario. If they are not willing to budge, it’s worth considering walking away from the project, and focusing your energy on finding better opportunities.

💪 How to help protect other creatives

By pushing back on copyright assignments, you are not only empowering yourself, you are also protecting and strengthening fellow licence-based industries. As a community of likeminded creatives, we can stop copyright assignments from becoming the norm. The following resources are designed to help build your knowledge and grow your confidence:




The AOI are calling for all creatives to join their campaign, use the hashtag #KeepYourCopyright to repost these resources on your social media channels and show your support.

Mention Association of Illustrators
Illustration by Olivier Heiligers
Illustration by Tania Yakunova