Who owns the copyright to my book cover?

What is copyright

What is copyrightLets get real- copyright is confusing! Especially when you hire someone artistically. So lets cut it down to the skeleton and see how it fits together.


Copyright is one of those topics that will go on forever in the land of Google. There’s no shortage of information. But there can never be a shortage of easy to understand information either so I’m going to do my best in explaining how copyright works. Consider it copyright for dummies, if you will!


What is copyright?

Copyright is the protection you’re entitled to for the work you create so no one else can simply steal your work and claim it as their own. Lets be clear:

The expression of the idea, not the idea itself.

Example of copyright forms: Painting, writing, designing, photography and music.

So whatever words you put on a page is copyrighted. Whatever sketches you make in your notebook is copyrighted.  And yes, it’s copyrighted- not copywritten.

Who owns the copyright of my book cover?

So you’ve pitched an idea to your designer. They design it. They send it to you. You like it. You buy it. No contract? The designer owns the copyright.

Whomever translates the idea into a form owns the copyright. This is across the board in all forms of artistic expression. You pitch an idea on a forum, and someone else writes it. They own the copyright. They’re bastards for doing it and you can take them to court, but it is not the idea that can be copyrighted but the form it takes through expression.


What happens more often than not-

(i.e.: Assume makes an ass out of…. you get it)

This is the situation: you get together with an artist or a designer and they do what you have asked of them. They send over a JPG or a PDF file to you. You then post that on blogs, on forums, you use it on Goodreads and Facebook ads, and on banners. Then you decide to submit it in to a magazine for an ad, and attach it for an article you’re writing, and then you’re putting it on a poster and a business card and bookmarks.

Reality: If your designer has not transferred the rights to you to use it for all these purposes- you’re breaching copyright law. You must have rights to post it where you want, and how many times you’re posting it.

You may also expect to receive all the files from your designer, including the Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign files with all the filters, images, and foundation of the book cover. Unless your contract states specifically, you are not entitled to these files- you’re entitled to the final product.



Limits on copyright:

Las Vegas design studio Formulis explain it expertly and simply:

1) For example, let’s say a designer creates a brochure for you using a stock image. Your designer has to purchase specific rights to use that image in your brochure. The price of the stock imagery is based upon the type of use, volume of brochures being printed, medium of use (print, web, TV, etc.) and additional factors. If you then take the brochure and decide to modify it for let’s say an advertisement in a trade magazine, you are then using the stock imagery against the licensing rights purchased… making you liable for damages and royalties to the photographer of that stock image.

2) The same usage and copyrights apply to any custom graphics and design work your Las Vegas graphic designer produces for you. You are contracting the design firm to produce finished pieces for you. Not full ownership rights to the work.

It’s the same as if you buy a painting in an art gallery, a book in a bookstore, or a copy of Microsoft Windows. Your purchase of those items limits you to a) display the painting in your home or gallery, b) read the book, and c) use MS Windows on your computer. Your purchase of the painting, book or software does not give you complete rights to the work and prevents you from: making copies of the painting or book for resale, using excerpts from the book for commercial gain, or reverse-engineering Windows and using it for other applications or resale.

When you purchase a piece of art (like a stock image, a book cover, a painting) there are different licences available. The things you need to take note of are:

  • How many impressions your stock image is licensed for (impressions meaning, how often you can print it before you have to repurchase the image).
  • Whether you can use the stock image for digital versions.
  • If you can distribute the stock image to sites other than where you’re publication is available to purchase like Amazon, or Smashwords. That is, can you put your book cover on a t-shirt, mug, DVD cover, etc.

Copyright Transfer

So where should you check copyright?

In the contract. When you purchase images off the internet there should be license details available, as there are on every stock image website. You’ll see different licenses such as ‘limited’, and ‘extended’.

If you’ve hired someone then it should definitely be in the contract. It’ll let you know if you have rights to use the images as you please, or limited rights, whatever the artist specifies. If there’s nothing in your contract about rights you MUST bring it up with your artist.


How can you claim the complete rights for your book cover?

It might already be in your contract that you get the raw files, or that you don’t. But either way at the end of the project you can ask your artist for all, raw files for your book cover- however be prepared to pay a LOT for it. I can’t give you an estimation as to what your designer will charge you because it changes from designer to designer. Why should you pay a lot for what you hired them for in the first place, you might be asking?

Look at it like a film. You enjoy watching it and pay for the DVD- but do you think you could ask for all the raw/native files from the producers for the same price?

That way you have all rights for distribution and creativity, you can do whatever you want with the files. In order to do that you need to compensate them for their work, time, ideas, energy and document management.


What about ‘marketplace/contest’ websites where designers can pitch to me their design, and I can pick from an array of different covers?

Yep. There are sites out there where you can log on, set up a contest and a price for your book cover, and designers will flock to give you a cover. When the ‘contests’ come to a close you can pick whichever cover works best for you, and the winning designer gets the price you set at the beginning of the competition. Sounds awesome huh?

[rant]I’ll be blunt: It’s an abuse to the good artists who supply services and are trying to make a living. When you go to these contest websites you are undermining the excellence of skill and talent that you could invest in a designer who would spend their time focusing directly on you. You’re exploiting ideas of people who are putting hours in to a concept for you.

There’s something called “No Spec” in the design community. No spec refers to designers saying “No!”  to speculative work. Speculative work means a designer making work for something that doesn’t guarantee a payment. Can you find another industry that doesn’t guarantee payment for services rendered?[/rant]

When you pitch to this community and set up a contest you will only obtain the rights to the final cover you buy. If you see other covers you like you have no rights to them, they are copyrighted to the designer who put it together. If you then take that idea to another designer and tell them that’s what you want- that’s a breach of copyright.

Not only that but a lot of submissions in to the contests use images and fonts that aren’t copyrighted (to the point where hobbyists will use images of models or actors) – and once the breach happens you have to deal with it when you’re confronted, and then have to pay another designer to design something that has all the applicable rights.


What to ask for:

Don’t be scared!

Copyright may stop you from entering a fulfilling and successful relationship with an artist, but it shouldn’t. In my own contract I state that my clients have full rights to the PDF and JPG. That’s all that’s required, “full rights to the final files”. Here are some simple questions you can ask to make sure all bases are covered:

1. How can we make sure I have rights to distribute this where I want? I might want to put this on a bookmark or poster, and I plan to post it on different websites on the net. Can we organize *#10,000 impressions*/*an unlimited use?

2. [If you have trouble finding it yourself] Can you show me where in the contract it states about my rights to the files? I want to make sure we’re both legally covered.

3. Do you keep your raw files, or do you provide them? 


 Check the copyright laws of your country.

Not every country has the same copyright laws so get informed. If you aren’t it could come back and bite you. A little bit of time and knowledge can save you a lot of money and stress!


Has this article given you a better insight in to copyright? Is it easy to understand? Are there still questions you’re confused about?

Comments 10

  1. Thanks, this was helpful. I don’t want to violate anyone’s copyright, but it’s hard to think about buying a cover and then not being able to use it wherever I like. I can understand not modifying it, or not getting the raw files. I guess the main point (which I didn’t know) is that you need to be sure you know what rights you have when you purchase your cover.

  2. I live and work in the US. This article only confuses the issue of copyright ownership.
    Here ‘work for hire’ is a specific legal label and the enty contracting and paying for the work owns the copyright by default.
    If the laws in other countries, such as yours, are different, that is a good reason to avoid cross border arrangements.
    Quite apart from the complications of using third party artwork, if I don’t own all other rights to my book cover, it could appear on another book, a magazine ad or on someone’s wall.
    How could this ever be acceptable?

    1. Post

      That’s right Charl, thanks for sharing. It’s vital to check the copyright laws in your own country as they change, depending on where you live and produce your work.

    2. Charl Dee wrote: “Here ‘work for hire’ is a specific legal label and the entity contracting and paying for the work owns the copyright by default.”

      Woah, no Charl Dee ! That is a common misunderstanding and potentially costly.

      If you live in the US and have commissioned and paid a freelance designer to create a cover for a book, without a ‘work for hire agreement’ in place, then the designer owns the copyright not you. Paying for the work does not constitute ownership. Even if you posted a cheque with an endorsement line that says “this signature confirms that the work was for hire.” This will not hold up in court.

      The laws are very specific in the US around the difference between ‘work for hire’ and ‘freelance’. Unless the work is created by your employee, a ‘work for hire agreement’ must be signed by the freelance designer before the work proceeds.

      If there is no signed written agreement, then the work isn’t ‘for hire’, and the freelance owns all the rights.

      The copyright laws are very fair, they are in place to protect musicians, artists etc. In any case I have never come across one single designer who had an issue signing a ‘work for hire agreement’ before proceeding with the design.

      Do not hire a contractor to design your book cover if they refuse to sign an agreement.

      Here is an example of a work for hire agreement

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  5. I am publishing a book about the early 1800’s and I hired a freelance artist to turn the camera shots into a pencil drawing. (no camera’s until 1852)
    So my question is two fold: Who owns the copyright and can I copyright the book?

    Thanks in advance Larry

  6. Okay, I have a question. I had a friend who wanted to do the cover for my book, but fizzled out and admitted she didn’t have time to do it. She sent me the painting she had done, giving me full rights to use/alter it. Another friend had a friend who owed her a favour and she offered to do the cover, at no charge, because she owed our mutual friend a huge favour. Het only request was to be given credit, which I gave her in the book on the copyright page, along with all of her contact info. I sent her my photo, my painting that the other friend had done, and a very detailed description of what I needed. She used both my photo and the painting to come up with the final cover. When she sent me the files, I found the print on the spine was upside down and that she had changed my summary on the back. I sent her several messages, she never answered. At the same time I had hired another artist to do the cover for another book and she offered to fix the issues with the first cover, and she did. I published it, and now a year later, she contacts me, angry because I didn’t tell her I was publishing it. A little hard to believe as she knew how hard I was working to publish, as well as the fact that we followed each other on facebook and I had posted MANY times there about the book, giveaways, etc. At any rate, she is basically trying to shake me down for money now. I explained I haven’t made a dime on the boo, I am still sending out copies to people in giveaways, trying to get enough reviews for Amazon to promote it. She is now threatening to sell it to others and that I am not allowed to use it. I pointed out that the main focal point in the cover is MY photo which I allowed her to use for MY cover, as well as the fact that she used the exact same design as the first artist, just changing the drawing style. The tree is very distinct and anyone can tell that it was drawn from my photo, which I did let her use for MY cover. I told her that to sell it is a breech of our agreement and of copyright laws (my photo/painting that were provided) and that she has no rights to sell it to anyone. This is a clear violation of our agreement, yet she is insisting that she will do what she wants.

  7. Ok I’m an author rec’d a community grant to produce & print 200 copies of a picture book about turtles for my school community& council rubbish waste education program. I write text for free I get self publisher to print and hire an artist to paint images from some of my photographs of turtles nesting etc & my illustration notes to guide her. I send an email ask to quote on 12 illustrations she’ s fine send back quote. I told her my self publishers had discuss using the cover for a fundraiser to help charity. She never signed any contract etc but wld get $1200 for 12 x A3 drawings watercolour. Then at the hand over meeting in front of me she tells me the cover came out really good and she wants to keep it and all the paintings. I was initially happy for her to do reprints with she scans if she wanted to do that or put them on her website to showcase her work because I had paid her to do the artwork for me she’s a wildlife artist not a book illustrator. I don’t know what to say. I leave the paintings to be scanned with publisher some minor errors had to be fixed eg photo shopped over as she had not followed the illustrations notes and template draft sketch. Now does she also own the scans of the book illustrations. Because i also paid for that. She has not done any un paid work except 2 hrs to sit with me to discuss layout of text type of cover design. The scans are mine as I had wanted them for my website promo book also at my launch i had wanted to hang them around the room I was going to credit her in my dedication but feel really bad now. I dont want to spend thousands for a solicitor to sort it out i haven’t received one cent for this project. I might be lucky to get $1000 if i print an extra 300 books & sell those to a library but I’ve spent alot of time setting it up to educate children about the impact if plastic litter in our marine life. I would like to think she doesnt get 2 bites eg get paid to do artwork then sell off my paintings without my permission. I wld give her one to.keep if she asked me. Though.

  8. What would really help are some sample contracts between:
    A. The illustrator/photographer and the cover designer
    B. The author and the illustrator/photographer
    C. The author and the cover designer

    I found your very excellent article because I’m an artist getting into the field of illustration and have an author client who is purchasing my art for a book cover. I need contracts A and B above, and can’t find an example of A after much searching.

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