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This guide is created by Melissa Man Pui Shan and maintained by Phoebe Lim Choon Lan.

This brief guide is an introduction to copyright and art images. It is intended to present basic concepts and provide resources for further information. Read on to find out why the image below is my intellectual property, and what that means!


Plagiarism and copyright infringement

Plagiarism is passing off another person’s writings or ideas as your own or without acknowledgement; whereas copyright infringement is reproducing or publishing another person’s copyrighted materials without their permission. Plagiarism is usually dealt with by academic institutions, whereas copyright infringement is dealt with in courts of law.


“To use or pass off as one’s own, the writings or ideas of another, without acknowledging or crediting the source from which the ideas are taken.” –NTU honour code


“Copyright protects works like novels, computer programmes, plays, sheet music and paintings. Generally, the author of a copyright work has the right to reproduce, publish, perform, communicate and adapt his work.” –IPOS (Intellectual Property Office of Singapore)

What is copyright?

Ideas themselves cannot be protected by copyright, but ideas expressed in tangible form can. Ideas expressed as literary works, dramatic works, musical works, drawings, paintings, films and performances may be protected by copyright.

As soon as an idea is expressed in a tangible form, the work is protected by copyright- the author does not need to apply or register for copyright protection. For example, as soon as I took the amateur photograph below, I had copyrights over that photo.


Ideas, discoveries, methods, works not in a tangible form, and works that are not of original authorship are not covered by copyright. Works in the public domain are not covered by copyright. For literary and artistic works, items usually enter the public domain 70 years after the author or creator’s death. 70 years after my death, the photo above will be in the public domain!

Exceptions to copyright

The Copyright Act permits copying the whole or part of copyrighted works if the copying constitutes “fair dealing”. The factors considered in deciding whether copying is fair dealing include: purpose of the dealing (e.g. commercial or educational nature), nature of the work, amount and substantiality of the part copied, effect of copying on the value or potential market for the original work, and the possibility of obtaining the work in a reasonable time and price.

When copying solely for study or research, it is considered to be fair dealing (up to 10% or one chapter of a copyrighted text can be copied). Copyrighted materials can also be used for the purpose of criticism or review, although proper acknowledgement is usually expected. If you acknowledge me as the creator, you can use my photo in an article reviewing its artistic merit!


Special considerations for art and copyright

Artworks are very clearly protected by copyright, and artists automatically become the copyright holders of their works as soon as they are expressed in tangible form. However, there are some additional considerations when it comes to art and copyright.

Images of artworks

Artists have automatic copyrights to their artworks; therefore their works cannot be reproduced without their permission. Unlike with literary works, the reproduction of an artwork must, by nature, be high quality in order to be accurate. There are, therefore, additional concerns when it comes to the use of art images.

Images of public domain works

When a person or a group makes exact photographic copies of artworks that are in the public domain (no longer protected by copyright), do they retain copyrights over the photographs that they produce? To determine this, we would have to look at case law; in Singapore there is not yet any case law on this topic. However, there are cases that apply in the US . US courts ruled that exact photographic replicas of public domain works are not under copyright!

Museum website licensing

If an artwork is in the public domain, is it safe to use images of those artworks? While US case law indicates that images of public domain works are not under copyright, this can still be contested, and as yet there is no such case law in Singapore. Museums, galleries, and trusts that own artworks tend to stipulate certain licensing terms. It’s important to check individual licensing terms, for example those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reviewing contemporary artworks

Laws on copyright infringement make exceptions for criticism, review, and reporting for current events, which are considered to be fair dealing. However, in order to obtain a useable image for such fair dealings, you might have to agree to certain licensing terms. As the copyright ultimately belongs to the creator, it is wise to seek precautionary permission.

Practical tips for navigating art and copyright

There are some practical aspects of copyright for both owners and users of images.

Using the c symbol

Authors and creators can use the ©symbol to signify their copyright claim on a work.  Using the symbol doesn’t grant specific rights and is not necessary for laying claim to copyright. However, if the ©symbol is present, a copyright infringer is less able to claim not to know about a work’s copyright protection.


In the above version of my image, I’ve included “© 2013” to signify my copyright claim on the photograph, created in 2013. I am the copyright owner regardless of the use of the © symbol , but now I’ve made it clear to anyone who may wish to reproduce it.

Creative commons

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that provides licenses which allow copyright owners to state the conditions in which people can use their works. CC licenses do not replace copyright and do not signify that a work is in the public domain. Information about specific CC licenses can be found on the Creative Commons website.

Commissioning of artwork

In cases where a portrait, photograph or engraving is commissioned, the commissioner owns the copyright. However, the commissioner must make the purpose of the commissioned work clear to the commissioned artist.

Seeking permissions from copyright owners

Susan Bielstein’s book “Permissions, a survival guide: Blunt talk about art as intellectual property” provides several sample copyright permission letters, but they can also be found online.

This guide was written based on materials in the bibliography. For more information about copyright and art images you can access these materials online or in the library- simply click on the title for more information. Do get in touch if you have any questions!


Adamson, G. (2012). Art and copyright. Art in America, 100(6), 77-79.

Bielstein, S. M. (2006). Permissions, a survival guide: Blunt talk about art as intellectual property. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Creative Commons. Creative Commons.   Retrieved October 2013, from

Davis, B. (2011). Copyright’s Immoral Rights? Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 27(4), 361-369. doi: 10.1080/01973762.2011.621871

Devereaux Lewis, C. (2012). Copyright concerns in visual resources collections: Clarifying the issues surrounding the use of images in education. Journal of Art, Technology & Intellectual Property Law, 23(1), 69-109.

Intellectual Property Office of Singapore. What is Intellectual Property and what are the different types?.   Retrieved October 2013, from

Lydiate, H. (2007). Photographing Art Collections. Art Monthly(308), 49-49.

Nanyang Technological University. Honour Code.   Retrieved October 2013, from

Wojcik, M. C. (2008). The Antithesis of Originality: Bridgeman, Image Licensors, and the Public Domain. Hastings Communications & Entertainment Law Journal (Comm/Ent), 30(2), 257-286.

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