It is considered best practice for the commissioner to lay out details of ownership and copyright in the original commission brief or in the artists’ contract. I would advise you to review the original commission brief and your contract to see if these issues were addressed. If these issues were not addressed and you have not assigned your copyright to the commissioner then the copyright remains with you. Assigning rights mean someone else becomes the owner of the copyright as well as the work. Visual Artists Ireland recommends that artists never assign their copyright to anybody.
When it comes to commissioning the issue of ownership is a bit of a grey area especially if there is no agreement in place. When a commissioner commissions a piece of work for a specific purpose there is an implied contract that the commissioner will own the work (though not the copyright – again unless you assigned it to them). With no agreement, the issue of ownership is open to interpretation. Thus, artists are advised to spell out their position concerning ownership when the terms of the commission are agreed.
When a commissioner commissions a piece of work then they have the right to reproduce the work in a variety of ways – for example using an image of the work for promotional purposes, on a website or in brochures. This should be stated in a contract or in the commission brief. If it is not, then it is implied that the commission can use the commissioned work in a number of ways.
As part of your copyright, you have moral rights, one of which is the right to paternity. So if the commissioner uses the work in a publication or on a website, you have the right to be identified as the creator of the work in the publication or on the website. The commissioner is the only party entitled to publish the work. If another party wishes to publish the work, they need your permission because you are the copyright owner.
There are a few texts on the Info-Pool section of our website that address these issues in more detail:
The first entitled ‘Copyright and the Visual Artist’ written by Solicitor Linda Scales, explains copyright and how it works, ownership, assigning and licensing rights, moral rights and information on copyright infringement.
The second text is entitled ‘Handling Disputes’. Here, Linda Scales provides advice to artists on how to avoid professional disputes and manage those that do occur. The information includes a sample letter of complaint that deals with infringement of copyright.
Another entitled ‘Contracts’ explains the legalities of contracts and how they work. Here you will find sample contracts for use when undertaking a commission, exhibiting with a gallery or reproducing an artwork.