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I'm creating a website an artist who draws with pencil+paper. The artist has scans and/or prints of all the illustrations completed over several years for various clients. Many of these were for pay.

I'm wondering if it is legal for the artist to display these scanned copies on their website portfolio or if they would have to get permission from the people who commissioned each piece of work.

Is there a general principle that states artists have a right to show examples of previous work, or will this depend on the compensation agreement for each work? The artist says most of these were done for pay on verbal agreement, but that there was very rarely any contract specifying copyright details.

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In which country are you working? This is important because countries have widely differing copyright and contract laws that will affect the answers. – Philip Regan May 10 '11 at 13:40

Here my two cents...

Typically, there's some sort of agreement or contract laid out. If there is no contract, legally, I don't believe there's anything the client can say or do. I mean, there's nothing to prove anything.

Often times an artist may also specify that they may use the work as part of their portfolio. Other times a client may buy exclusive rights to the artwork.

But again, without a contract you can't prove much of anything.

Either way, it shouldn't make too much of a difference to you. You wouldn't get in trouble for anything anyway if you're unaware of it. That would be the artists responsibility.

I'm no lawyer though, so don't take my post as any legal advice.

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Speaking generally, the copyright belongs to the artist unless they "give" their rights away (contractually or otherwise) or they produce the work as a "work for hire". The term "work for hire" has a very specific meaning in the US.

Here's the AIGA's take on copyright ownership.

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It depends from country laws, but in general the transfer of any right must be written in the contract, to be valid.

If he had explicitly signed to transfer rights of

  • produce copies or reproductions
  • perform or display the work publicly
  • transmit or display

he can't copy and show his works, also on the Web. Otherwise he can use them, even if were paid.

From Wikipedia:

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, a transfer of ownership in copyright must be memorialized in a writing signed by the transferor.

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