Who Owns the Cover Art?

Today’s post takes a look at creation, use, and ownership of cover art for fiction and nonfiction works.

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Cover art is copyrighted, just like any other image, photograph, or creative work that qualifies for legal protection.

The creator of the cover art is also its legal owner, with the sole right to control its use, copying, and distribution. For this reason, authors cannot use cover art–either on the work itself or on related marketing materials–without permission from the legal owner.

Under the traditional publishing model, the cover art for published works is typically owned by the publisher (not the author). 

Ownership of cover art in traditionally published works is generally referenced in the publishing contract. Check your contract if you don’t remember what it says about the cover art. (Almost surely, the art belongs to your publisher.)

The publishing contract usually gives the author the right to use the cover art in marketing materials and online during the contract term. Some contracts require the author to obtain the publisher’s permission for each proposed use of cover art. Better contracts simply grant the author free rein to use the work’s cover art for marketing and promotion. (Pro Tip: during negotiations, ask the publisher to remove the requirement that you obtain permission prior to using cover art for marketing purposes.)

Under the self-publishing model (& sometimes hybrid ones), the author generally contracts directly with the cover artist.

Note: unless you are a qualified artist, and own the art you’re using, it’s not smart to create your own self-published covers. A professional cover artist, and professional cover art, are a solid (and important) investment for self-published authors.

When hiring a cover artist, always use a written contract which contains proper warranties that the art will be original and/or properly licensed. Also, check the artist’s references and look at samples of his or her work to ensure it’s not derivative or copied. If you hire a cover artist and (s)he uses infringing art, you–the author–will be the one who’s sued. If the (written) artist contract contains proper indemnities, you can seek reimbursement for your losses. However, if the artist has no money to pay the indemnity, you could still be stuck paying if your cover art infringes.

When you self-publish, you are the publisher, which means you are liable for infringing cover art. Take the time, and make the effort, to ensure your cover art isn’t copied or infringing someone else’s legal rights.

The copyright on cover art is separate from the copyright in the work on which the art appears. Sometimes, authors mistakenly believe that ownership of the work includes ownership of the cover art. Not necessarily true. 

After a traditional publishing contract ends, the author generally loses the right to continue using the publisher’s cover art in connection with the work. Authors who choose to self-publish, or find new publishers for backlist titles, generally will need new cover art also. Authors can ask for permission to continue using the publisher’s cover art after termination, but the publisher can say no. When a publisher does grant permission for use of its cover art after contract termination, there’s often a fee.

Don’t forget that the cover art has a separate copyright than the text of the work, and that authors need to be careful to respect that cover art copyright. Whether you self-publish or publish traditionally, make sure your cover art is legal, and that you use it properly.

Had you ever considered the copyright issues surrounding cover art?

2 thoughts on “Who Owns the Cover Art?

  • July 2, 2015 at 12:40 pm

    I’ve hired two different cover artists so far. I have considered using a contract, but neither one of the artists has used a contract. I did get written permission in email format to use the book cover for any and all publicity materials.

    On a related note, does this mean that cover art on public domain books is also in the public domain, or are there separate copyright laws in place there?

    • July 27, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      Cover art on the public domain books is not necessarily in the public domain – partly because some later editions’ art may still be protected. Definitely research it separately.

      Written permission in email form is better than nothing, but it’s important to get hard signatures if you can, because some courts still insist on them.

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