This post is about whether you can legally sell digital copies of original art, and if so, the best way to do it.
A few days ago I posted a tweet on Twitter about selling digital copies of original art. The response was huge! It led to many interesting discussions with artists, collectors, galleries, and more.
The topic has been covered before by others but from different perspectives than I’m going to look at it here. The main question is: can you sell digital copies of original art and if so, how?
This post will be about the legalities of doing this, specifically on eBay and Etsy.
I’ve compiled a lot of information in this post to help you decide if you want to sell digital copies of your work on these websites.
One of the most common questions I get as a dealer is, “Can I sell digital copies of my work on my website?” The short answer is almost certainly yes.
The longer answer is that the issue of whether you can sell digital copies of original art is currently an area of some legal ambiguity. It is not entirely clear that it always counts as a “public performance” and therefore requires a license from the copyright owner (the artist) in order to do so. But there are certainly cases where it does count as a public performance, and there are also cases where the artist has done nothing to make it clear what their intentions are. So while it might be fine to sell digital artwork, you should assume that doing so could potentially get you into trouble.
Checking with your lawyer before proceeding will be both wise and prudent.
In the US, it is legal to sell digital copies of original art, as long as you own the rights to the work and it is not a photograph. It is important to note that this only applies to works of art that are in your possession.
Question: Is it legal to sell digital copies of original art?
Answer: No! There are a lot of arguments that you can make, but the simplest is that it’s against the law. You can sell a work of art (a physical object) if you own it, or if you have permission from the owner. This gives rise to some interesting questions about frames, and whether you own an original painting in the frame, or just the canvas and paint. The current consensus is that you can only sell your own original art if you own it.
But what about reproductions? Surely there are lots of people selling prints of famous paintings…
Answer: Yes, but not very many, and they’re all breaking the law. In 2008 there was a case involving a site called Fine Art America, who were sued by various artists for copyright infringement. The judge agreed with them and ordered Fine Art America to remove any copyrighted work from their site.
Most reproduction rights organizations (RROs) will tell you that “reproduction” means making copies of existing works; they won’t tell you anything about copying works which do not exist. It’s not in their interest to give away this information, because the primary way they make money is licensing reproductions of existing
If you are buying art for yourself, you don’t have to worry about the legalities, but suppose that you are planning on reselling it at a profit. For example, suppose you bought some famous painting for $100 and then resold it for $1000. If it’s possible to make a copy of the painting and resell that copy, then in theory you could buy a whole bunch of copies and resell them in order to make a profit.
Thing is, though, the resale of copyrighted works is not really legally allowed. Technically, copyright law allows only the resale of copies of copyrighted works which have been authorized by the copyright holder. So if someone has made a digital copy of your painting without authorization, even if they aren’t selling it themselves they’re still violating copyright law by allowing you to sell your own copy. In fact, even if they are selling their own copy (or copies), they’re also violating copyright law by allowing you to sell your own unauthorized copy.
Which means that if you buy a digital copy of someone’s work in order to resell it at a profit, you may be violating both trademark and copyright law.
In the early 1990s, I was one of the first people to sell computer art. I didn’t invent it. But I was in the right place at the right time to be there when artists began using computers to make art, and I developed a business around it.
Sound recordings and films had been around for a long time, so there were legal precedents for selling copies of them. But no one had ever made or sold copies of visual art. The biggest obstacle was that no one knew whether or not it would be legal to do it.
Artists who want to make money selling art need to make sure that their work is legally marketable. So if you are an artist, or are thinking about being one, a good first step is to check with a lawyer familiar with intellectual property law.
Trying to get rich by selling copies of other people’s art is risky, and comes with legal risks of its own.