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The artist did not ask me to sign any agreements and neither did I, the artwork was paid for, but after a personal conflict the artist told me they were "revoking" the character the artwork was of. They then posted the artwork on their social media and gave it away for free. Do I have any legal protections in this case? The artwork was a reference sheet for a character owned by me, but it's design was first created by the artist and there were no other pieces of artwork with the same character previously. Can an artist give away my character, if they were the first to visually express it in drawn form?

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    Did you sign any contract with said artist? Jun 1, 2020 at 19:49
  • Did you agree to pay the artist, and them accept over email or just verbally? Jun 2, 2020 at 3:30
  • Thanks a lot for your interest in my question! @Mär, no, sadly there was contract involved. Jun 2, 2020 at 8:52
  • @DarcyThomas, all communication was through Twitter and Discord, but there is only partial proof, since the artist chose to delete our Discord Direct Message history after this incident occurred. Yet, i still have a PayPal receipt and screenshots showing that the artist initially agreed to work on this commission. Jun 2, 2020 at 8:52
  • Tags added for the involved jurisdictions, per comments.
    – MSalters
    Jun 2, 2020 at 12:38

3 Answers 3

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OP commissioned the work, so they own the copyright

(Depending on the jurisdiction)

OP has a verbal (possibly written if negotiated over email) contract with the artist. They made an offer ('can you make this for me'), with consideration ('I can pay you $xyz') and the other party, the artist, accepted the offer ('yup, I can do that for you') Presumably they were also (legally) able to accept the offer and do the work.

So that covers the 3-4 requirements for a contract.

OP held up their side of the agreement (they paid the artist)

Since OP commissioned the creation of the work, unless explicitly specified other wise, they would retain full ownership and rights to the work. Or in other words they own the physical and intellectual property (i.e., Copyright).

This [Commission] Rule... provides that, where an original work is created on a client’s instructions for a fee (or other reward), then the client (not the creator) owns the copyright in the work. *

This can smart with many artists (myself included) who have poured their heart and soul in to a piece. I am sorry to say this, but you have sold a piece of your soul. That's rough, but that is the way it is.

So unless there are some other details, OP owns the work and the artist 'revoking' is just breach of contract. But since OP has held up their side, the contract is still binding.

This means the artist posting to their Instagram is making a copy of OPs copyrighted work.

What OP does from here is more complex. Yes they could take the artist to court. But this is probably not worth their time, effort, energy. And the bad blood you have with the artist will only get worse. This may also affect your standing within the community.

OP could also make a DMCA takedown request with Instagram. But again this is going to get messy with the artist and perhaps the community.

What to actually do is out of scope, and is a separate question.


*This links to a page on NZ copyright law.

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It depends where this happened

The basic rule of copyright is that the author/artist/creator owns the copyright. However, copyright law varies by country, for example:

  1. In the the principal owns the copyright in work for hire which is:

(1) a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment; or (2) a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas, if the parties expressly agree in a written instrument signed by them that the work shall be considered a work made for hire. (17 U.S.C. § 101)"

  1. In , the employer owns the copyright in works created by employees in the course of their employment but the IP created by a contractor is by law considered the property of the contractor unless otherwise stated in the contract.

  2. In , the creator is always the owner of copyright irrespective of any employment or other contract.

  3. In , the employer or commissioner owns the copyright unless the employment contract vests it in the employee.

So there is no one size fits all - for your circumstances, in the first 3 jurisdictions the copyright would belong to the artist, but in it would belong to you (probably).

In some jurisdictions, the owner of a copyright can transfer it to another and in others transfer is not permitted and only licencing is allowed. In most jurisdictions that allow a transfer, they usually require that this be in writing.

Further, outside the , most jurisdictions recognise the "moral rights" of creators separate to the proprietary rights of the copyright owner. These also vary by jurisdiction but generally include rights of attribution and rights of integrity of the work. They also may or may not be transferrable.

There is a very small chance that your contribution is significant enough that the work is one of joint authorship - if so you both own the copyright and neither can use it without the other's permission. It is also possible if the final work is based on your preliminary sketch then it is a derivative work but even then it would have separate copyright as it was made with permission.

If the artist owns the copyright, then they can make and use as many copies as they like.

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    Yes... Except if the artwork was comissoned (or created under employment). A verbal agreement is still a contract. Therefore since the payment was made, the purchaser has the rights to the physical and IP. Jun 2, 2020 at 0:11
  • If the artist produced the drawn character to the OPs specifications, then the OP essentially created the character while the artist simply visualised it - the artist probably does not have the same rights to distribute and create derivative works as they would if they created the character from scratch without the OPS involvement. This feels very much like a collaborative work imho.
    – user28517
    Jun 2, 2020 at 0:20
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    @DarcyThomas Copyright can only be transferred by written agreement - an oral contract can't do that.
    – Dale M
    Jun 2, 2020 at 0:49
  • @DaleM yeah, you are falling into the jurisdiction trap there - a verbal offer and acceptance of employment would constitute a verbal contract in the UK and thus copyright would be owned by the employer and not the employee.
    – user28517
    Jun 2, 2020 at 3:54
  • @DaleM If it was agreed over email/chat would that count as written? Jun 2, 2020 at 4:05
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It depends on where you are, among other things. In the US, if you commission an artist to make a work of art for money, as an "employee" the work is a "work for hire" unless your written contract says that it is not (thus not applicable in this case). The case of Community For Creative Non-Violence v. Reid, 490 U.S. 730 is the leading case for distinguishing "employees" from "contractors". This article compares US, Australia, UK, France, Germany, China and Japan on the "work for hire" point: France, Germany and China do not have the "work for hire" system; but France and Germany have exceptions for audio-visual work where the work may vest in the customer and not the artist.

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