Updated: Apr 29
Do you commission artwork and graphics from others for your Twitch streams, YouTube channel, or merch store? You need to learn the basics of copyright so you don't accidentally steal from your favorite artist! This post is also for artists - if you're just getting started with taking commissions, you'll want to know what rights you have, what to write in your contracts (you have a contract, right?), and how to keep your clients in check!
Quick disclaimer - I'm not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. I'm just a designer who wants to help educate artists and clients on the basics of copyright! If you need legal help, please consult a qualified legal professional.
What are Usage Rights?
Basically - it’s the right to use a commissioned artwork a certain way. A fantastic example is Twitch emotes: the usage is uploading the emote to Twitch as an incentive for a subscription. If that streamer was then to repurpose an emote onto a mug, that would be a new usage - likely not covered by the initial emote commission.
Usage Rights vs Copyright
Copyright is the full legal control over a work of art or graphic. Someone with the copyright of a work can control the usage rights. It is not typical for an artist to hand over copyright of a commissioned work.
Usage Rights are individual instances of permission to use something for a specific purpose. Someone with usage rights cannot control the copyright. Example: If I'm commissioned to design a set of Twitch panels, I grant the usage right for the client to upload them to their Twitch channel.
Why does this matter?
Because, if we keep going with the Twitch emote example, emotes are priced by artists for the usage of emotes. If you were to ask the same artist for their merch design prices, they’d likely be higher!
If you use an emote as merch, without paying for the additional right to do so - you are stealing from the artist. It's like if an energy drink brand paid you $100 for a sponsored stream, and then they used a clip from your stream in a commercial without permission or mentioning it in the contract. Not cool, right? (Heads up: this isn't cool)
For artists, this matters both for monetary reasons but also for brand control. If a work of art has my name on it, I want to make sure it’s up to my standards! I certainly don’t want a pixelated, blurry emote on a mug credited with my name!
But don't I automatically own artwork I pay for?
NO. Not in the US, at least. Unless a project is work made for hire, the copyright stays with the artist unless otherwise transferred - which is not typical and very expensive.
Work Made For Hire means that the artist is an employee - you pay their salary, control their hours, pay for healthcare, etc. so - very much not what is happening here.
For clients, how can I be sure that I'm not violating my artist’s copyright?
If the usage rights are outlined in your contract, refer to that first. But if you aren’t sure - just chat with your artist! Better to be safe than ruin a professional relationship.
Some other examples of usage rights violations would be things like cropping an offline screen to use as a Twitter banner or repurposing Twitch panels to use in a social media graphic. These both are considered derivative works and violate the artist’s copyright.
Another great example is merchandise - it is the norm in the design industry for merch to be priced per type of product and per set time of usage and include royalties! But that's a discussion for another time.
For artists, how can I protect my copyright?
The biggest step is to write it in your policies and in your contracts. Be upfront about usage rights and educate your clients about them (feel free to send them this post!).
Also be careful about what files you give clients - give them file types that work for their intended purpose. For example, don't send a high resolution, print quality PNG of an emote design. Most artists do not ever send working files (your Illustrator/Photoshop/Procreate files).
I've also started including a very specific outline of what usage rights my clients have with their final art files. Since I tend to do larger projects, it can be months between the contract being signed and the final delivery of the project - so I like to remind them of what rights they paid for.
I hope this post helped you learn a bit about copyright and usage rights! If you are looking for a designer to create a cohesive look for your channel, I might be your gal! Check out my portfolio and content creator services pages - and if you need some instant usage rights, check out my stream graphics kits!