Recipient of Gifted Artwork Thinks They Own Copyright...?

  • For Christmas, I gave my best friend an original artwork. He was very impressed and happy with it, even claiming it was as good as a drawing in a book he owns that was written by a successful artist. Then he "gave me permission" to use the scanned digital version of the drawing on my website and social media, saying that "it was reasonable" in his opinion for me to use it in my portfolio or similar ways. He thinks he now owns copyright to the intellectual property, not just the original drawing! Uh oh.

    Of course I signed and dated the drawing. I didn't explain copyright to him, because I knew he would contest it and demand I show him proof from a source, and this debate could harm the friendship. Besides, I don't foresee any future issues with him or this drawing (I can't imagine selling prints or needing it for promotions in any way, and I'm fine with him reselling the original I gave him if he ever wants to sell it, which is his right anyway.) I'm very happy to have created and gifted the artwork and glad he and his family enjoy it, but I think maybe I'll never gift art again to anybody, because the recipient could misunderstand and think they own copyright / can restrict my use of the image, and discussing this with future recipients could go poorly.

    Has anyone had this happen to them?

    Do you think it's best not to gift artwork in order to protect the relationship with the recipient? Or perhaps some of you use a special "insert" to accompany the artwork or written on the back, which clearly states copyright ownership and uses the recipient is allowed to do?

  • SVS OG

    @Amanda-Bancroft if there’s no writing, then he does not own the copyright. He only owns the original. You have the rights as creator to reproduce it however you want.

  • @Amanda-Bancroft just curious if it was his reference material? That might give him some potential feeling of feeling an ownership. I went through something like this with a friend a few years back but it was her reference material so that got complicated! I only use my own reference now unless it's a pet portrait with photo by owners or I'm using reference super loosely.
    Sorry for what you are going through tho. ☹️ I just had to live and learn from my experience with my friend. I do things differently now. πŸ˜‰

  • Pro

    @Amanda-Bancroft Gifting or selling an original artwork never transfer the copyright, of course. It seems to me this was just a misunderstanding, but I wonder about why you cannot explain this to him without harming the friendship. There are ways to explain basic facts to someone very nicely and politely without starting a fight! If it were me I would have corrected his wrong assumption right then and there, nicely but unequivocally. But you can still say something now.

    "I'd like to talk to you about something, "Paul". I'm so happy that you loved the drawing I gave you for Christmas, but I was a little taken aback when you said you would give me permission to use the scanned version for my portfolio. I don't think you realize that's not how copyright actually works. I was so surprised I didn't say anything in the moment, and afterwards I asked some artist friends about it and they confirmed what I thought. I don't expect this will ever become a problem, not with a good friend like you! But I just wanted to explain so you know in the future, if I or someone else gives you an original again. The copyright of an artwork always stays with the creator, unless the creator expressly sells it away in a contract. Even then, there are usually limitations like for how long the artworks can be used and in which countries. When the artist gives or even sells away an original, they are just giving away the object, not the intellectual property. The artist still has full right to show a scanned version or the artwork anywhere they want, or even sell reproductions. They don't need the consent of the person they sold the original to. In fact, if you are gifted an original again or purchase one, you will want to ask the artist if you are allowed to show it on your own social media. They may not allow it! Of course, I'm completely cool with you showing the drawing or doing whatever you want with it. And I wasn't planning to sell any reproductions of this particular drawing. I just wanted to let you know that you seemed to have misunderstood how copyrights work. Not many people know, and I find myself explaining things like that to people all the time! It's very common but I figure the more people know, the better! If you have any questions, I'll be delighted to tell you more!"

  • Moderator

    I would just say "This sounds like you believe you own copyright to this piece now. I gave you a piece of art, but I didn't hand over the copyright. That's not how copyright works."

    Straight to the point without being mean.

    If they get upset and come back about copyright you could go further. "If you had commissioned me, I would still own copyright to the art, unless I sold you those rights on top of the art commission".

    If they come back again, link them to a copyright law. If they are just uncomfortable about you using something with thier character " I still own copyright, but if you are uncomfortable with me using it in prints or an art book lets talk.". I could see it being uncomfortable for some if it is their personal character. I also see many artists sell prints and art books full of commissions, and then they just give credit to the characters owner (not always). Put it in your TOS (I retain rights to all artwork I produce, and have full rights to create and sell prints, products, and incorporate the commissioned art into a collective art book of my work with no compensation to the commissioner as I own copyright to the artwork created, if you want to commission me and do not want to allow me to make prints or art books containing your character there will be X fee added on top of commission fee, and I still retain copyright unless you agree to purchase copyright for a discussed fee) So you get some extra funds to offset potential loss for not being able to utilize the art, but they still can't run off an mass produce products without compensating you.

    I've had people try to say they own copyright to their OC (which they do in someway), so I cannot sell prints unless I compensate them. That is tricky, and could work for larger companies. Then again I've seen larger companies allow their artists to sell prints of the commissioned work so long as it did not compete with the product, and did not require compensation to be sent to the company. This was for flat fee no royalty art, so the company allowed the artist to make more money off of the image on their own as long as it did not compete. The artist did have to give credit to the company on the image, a little copyright down at the bottom along side the artists name. These are just opinions, I am not a lawyer or attorney.

    Sorry for the rambling, talking about your current issue and things to think about for the future.

    Also if you loose a friend over this, they weren't a very good friend. If they are your best friend, they should be patient enough to listen and understand even if they don't like it too much. I hope it works out!

  • @NessIllustration this is a very thoughtful and educational reply. Thank you for taking the time to write up.
    @Amanda-Bancroft I hope you find a way to have an open-hearted chat with your friend.

  • @Coley Good question, but nope, this was just an animal drawing I did without using any photo reference from him.

    @CLCanadyArts That's another angle I hadn't considered, good to know! But in this case I wasn't using any characters or anything designed by my friend.

  • @NessIllustration This was a great summary dialogue example, thank you! I might just explain it in this way.

    @NessIllustration Yes that's true, we didn't have a contract it was merely a gift of original artwork.

  • @NessIllustration I forgot to answer your question, "why you cannot explain...without harming the friendship"? So in my experience, people who have no clue about copyright and art have a strong opinion that they already know everything about it. When I try to explain it, they have sometimes reacted as though I were stepping out of line and should keep to my place as the illustrator, sometimes they have insisted on taking all the original artwork for a children's book and claiming copyright (although that wasn't in the contract they created, just their assumption), so I have had to go through conflict when refusing to hand over my dozens of originals. Several people have equated holding an original artwork with having full rights to use it as well as me giving up all rights if I give them the original, just the act of physically handing it to them, nothing written down. This is just done in ignorance, but educating people about copyright gets tricky. They sometimes feel like the "real" reason I am contradicting them about copyright is because I am being an arrogant artist, or that I'm not educated because I'm young, or I'm emotionally attached to the piece(s) so that's why I don't want to give it up, etc.

    In this new case with my best friend, he told me his mother explained to him about copyright and so I will be contradicting his own mother if I explain this to him and how she is wrong actually...tricky business! So in this case, easiest to avoid discussing it. In future cases though, I think labeling the gift with copyright info might be best. I don't have a great source though, I searched online for gifted artwork / copyright and couldn't find something that seemed authoritative.

  • Moderator

  • Pro

    @Amanda-Bancroft I too have had cases of people misunderstanding copyright and getting antsy when I correct them. But it was always in business settings with people trying to get the most stuff out of me, not with friends and family. This is your best friend, who cares about you a lot. And this is about a gift you've given him, not something he bought and trying to make the most of. I really do think we should be able to communicate politely but honestly with friends. If we're unable to do so, how great of a friendship is it actually? There is always a phrasing that will work. In this case, I think it would be best to write him a letter or email, so you can get it all out without him interjecting things his mother said or getting dragged into an argument. Be honest about why you're reluctant to breach this subject, and it's sure to soften him up.

    "In the past, when I've tried to correct clients or business partners about this in order to protect myself and my basic rights as an artist, I've been attacked. I was very reluctant to bring this up with you since your friendship is so important to me, and I didn't feel it was worth it to risk an argument. I was especially reluctant to give you facts that would contradict what your mother told you, forcing you to choose who to believe between me and her. But I realized that your misunderstanding of copyright was making me not want to gift you another piece of artwork again, and this saddens me very much especially considering how much you and your wife seemed to enjoy this one. I also realized that one of the reasons you're so important to me as a friend is that I know we can have honest, respectful conversations together, and I shouldn't fear you attacking me like past clients have. Nor do I think your mother is lying and intentionally spreading hurtful, wrong facts about copyright. There is simply so much misinformation out there about this subject, that it can be really hard to pick out truth from fiction when you are not working in this field. I will leave some information for you from reputable sources, and it would mean a lot to me if you would read it."

    I hope you can find the words to talk to your friend about this and won't just let it go πŸ™‚ I think it would be terribly if you let a misunderstanding uncleared and most importantly, let your friend trample you simply to avoid an argument. If he is a true friend, he would want you to stand up for yourself. If the situation was reversed and you were the one who had done this to a friend without meaning to, wouldn't you want to know? Would you actually lash out at your friend if they attempted to correct you in the nicest way they could manage? I really think you're selling your friend short by expecting the worst from him. It comes down to this: I think he should know and I think if he's a true friend there's no way he'll start a fight over this. If he does start a fight over this, I don't know why you would even consider this man your friend.

    This situation reminds me of the saying "ask and you shall receive". Every life experience I've had so far tells me that when people express what they want, what they need, or how they want to be treated/not be treated, everyone is better for it and so much of the time everyone gets what they want. But too often, we fear expressing what we want, we fear standing up for ourselves. We let bad situations live on and fester, when a simple earnest conversation would have cleared things up. Talk to your friend!

  • Thanks everyone for this awesome advice, insights and suggested wording! I also really appreciate the copyright infographic @CLCanadyArts thank you! OK so I have sent a brief message to my friend just asking for clarification on what he's thinking, and based on his response I can send him this information. I'm hoping it'll be straightforward to clear things up. I'll let you know how it works out.

  • Update:

    Thanks to the information you all provided to me, my friend and I were able to chat online about it very calmly and politely. @NessIllustration you were right after all! We just had a misunderstanding that was quickly cleared up, and actually it was good we discussed it because we were able to share a lot more information than just about who owns copyright. This positive experience helped counteract my past negative experiences explaining copyright. Also I recorded notes from this thread so if the issue comes up again I'll have the information quick at hand and will know to discuss copyright up front with either the gift recipient or buyer. I feel much better about gifting artwork now! Thanks! πŸ™‚

  • Pro

    @Amanda-Bancroft I'm so glad it went so well! πŸ˜ƒ You go girl!!

Log in to reply