Who Has the Right to Profit From Famous Antique Art?

by annbailey on September 20, 2012

Profiting off of the intellectual property of another can be hazardous for the unwary. Poorly drafted licensing agreements can be unenforceable or result in extensive litigation. Happily, not all intellectual property is subject to legal restraints. With certain limitations, business owners may legally profit off of art antiquities.

Copyright Law

Society protects artists via copyright laws. Copyright laws grant artists an exclusive right to the use of their works. Copyright infringement can have severe penalties for the infringing party. Damages may include compensatory damages for loss of earnings and disgorgement of profits. Experienced law firms have experts that can give legal advice regarding copyright laws. Statutory damages may also be available.

Copyright laws exist to foster innovation and allow artists to profit from their works. However, societies also wish to foster education, maintain a cultural heritage, and entitle future artists to build upon the works of old. As such, copyright protections expire after a certain statutory period. This period differs between countries, but is usually between 50 and 70 years. After this period, the works are released into the public domain and are free of encumbrance from copyright protections. Other artists may make derivative works and entrepreneurs may make framed print art copies, for example, and profit from the work.

Even within the statutory period, there are some legal exemptions to copyright law. In the United States, copies for commercial purposes may be still covered under Fair Use doctrine, which authorizes use for criticism, commentary, and various educational purposes. In determining whether a work meets this standard, courts will analyze several factors as listed in the Copyright Act of 1976. The Act considers the purpose and character of the work, the nature of the copyrighted work, how much of the work is being copied, and the new work’s commercial effect on the old work.

The Business of Public Domain Works

Antique art pieces, by nature, will usually fall outside the statutory period for copyright law. Thus, they may be freely traded, duplicated, and modified. For the business owner, that means that the antique product is widely available and free to anyone who wants to copy it. While it is still possible to profit from public domain works, monetizing a public domain work can be challenging.

Businesses that simply republish existing works may find it challenging to find a market. In order to profit, businesses must add some sort of value to the work. This added value often comes in the form of compilations, commentaries, or derivative works. These offerings usually provide customers with additional art that they may not have known about, insights, or even new works.

In the modern era, duplicating famous art antiquities is not difficult. Mobile phone cameras can take high-resolution photographs of a work, and commercially available photograph editing software can help the user crop and orient the photo into a commercially viable product. High-resolution printers are available to handle a business’ publication requirements. Creating a derivative work by modifying an existing public domain product can create a unique product for businesses.

Generally, famous art antiquities may be traded like any other good. Individuals must first ensure that the work is either in the public domain or that the individual wishing to sell the copies of the work has a licensing agreement with the copyright holder. If an individual has any doubts regarding whether a work is subject to copyright restrictions, he or she should consult an attorney in his or her area.

Ann M. Bailey, a contemporary artist with many copyrighted pieces of her own, contributes this article on behalf of the online print purveyor, Artismo. The reproduction company offers framed print art of both antiquities and new works, bringing affordable art products to the world market.

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