Copyright is the form of intellectual property protection which applies to original works, such as digital art. A copyright gives you, the creator, the exclusive right to use your original digital artwork as you see fit.
In the United States, copyright law is based on the 1976 Copyright Act and the 1988 Berne Convention Implementation Act. These state that your original work is automatically copyrighted the moment it is set down in a fixed medium. You no longer even have to register it with the government. However, an automatic copyright gives you little practical protection in the Wild West frontier of the Internet, where most digital art is displayed and used.
A poor man’s copyright is little better. The electronic version of the poor man’s copyright is to email a copy of your digital art to yourself. It cannot prove originality, so it won’t stand up in court on its own. However, it does create a record of when the work was complete and within your control. In the simplest copyright infringement cases, that may be enough.
You can register your digital art with the United States Copyright Office electronically or through snail mail. You can also hand-deliver your application. The address of the USCO is 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington DC, 20559-6000.
The cost is $50 if using Form CO (copyright office form), $65 if using the old Form VA (visual arts works), or $35 for electronic registry. If you are applying online, you will receive an email stating that your application has been received. If sending your application via snail mail, use a certified letter or courier with a receipt request. This will confirm that your application arrived safely.
You will require a copy of Form CO or Form VA. (Form VA and other paper forms are being phased out.) If you are printing out your forms, make sure each form prints cleanly and that the barcode is crisp and clear. Do not use a dot matrix printer. Do not use photocopies. Each time Form CO is pulled up, it creates a unique barcode.
All copyright applications also require a copy of the original work for the Library of Congress, two if the work is unpublished. Even if you register online, the Library of Congress may ask you to mail a non-returnable hard copy of your work. To prevent damage due to standard security measures, the USCO recommends that CDs, DVDs, and flash drives be packaged in boxes when sending them via snail mail. (Floppy disks are not acceptable.) These electronic and hard copies become property of the US government.
To save time and money, register your digital art as a collection before posting any form of it on the Internet. Unpublished works can often be registered as a single collection under a single application. Once a work is published, it must be registered separately.
Protecting your copyright
Digital artists are often caught in a catch-22: if you don’t post your pictures online, you don’t get thieves, but you also don’t get customers. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to limit the damage.
Post your copymark prominently on every webpage. A standard phrase should do: “[Title of this site] and all its images are (C) [your name] [year]. Do not reproduce, distribute, or otherwise use any part of this site without permission from [your name].” Add your copyright registration number, and a link where you can be reached for licensing or sales information.
Use Flash on your webpages whenever possible. This makes it difficult to download or hotlink images without resorting to a screenshot. However, Flash will affect the search engine optimization (SEO) of your site. A tutorial on how to stop hotlinking without using Flash is available here.
Use low resolution versions of your images on your webpages for all but the most intricate digital art. Keep the high resolution versions offline.
Identify each of your digital art files by a file name consisting of a unique jumble of numbers and letters. This makes it easy to track down illegally copied files, which often still have the same file name. Embed every piece of digital art with a visible watermark showing your copyright. At the same time, bury a hidden digital watermark with the same information right in the file.
Under fair play rules, your registered digital artwork can still be used by non-profit organizations or schools, as long as they don’t make any money off your work. Where feasible, small excerpts from the file may also be referenced by reviewers.