Now inviting all designers, artists, photographers, marketers to our Artist + Designer plan (4TB)

Design copyright: what you need to know

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” That’s how Pablo Picasso summed up the secret reality of writers, musicians, artists, and designers everywhere.

Ironically, though, Picasso wasn’t the first to say it and may not have even said it at all — various versions of the phrase had been in circulation since the late 1800s and attributed to writers and artists ranging from T.S. Eliot to Igor Stravinsky.

All of which makes this quote a great example of how inspiration works and how artists throughout the ages have taken ideas and given them their own twist.

The truth is creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. That lightbulb moment is rarely a result of divine inspiration — it usually comes from a much more terrestrial source. As a designer, you probably get ideas from the world around you — whether it’s the architecture in your city, your favorite place in nature, or the artists and designers you admire.

Looking to others for inspiration is natural, but there’s a line between inspiration and plagiarism — which is where copyright law comes in.

Understanding intellectual property and design copyright is crucial if you want to avoid treading on another artist’s toes. It also means you can protect your own work and know what to do if someone infringes on your copyright.

This article will cover the basics of intellectual property, how design copyright law works, and what to do if someone rips off your work.

What is intellectual property?

Intellectual property (IP) is the term used to describe any original work a person creates. Whether you write a song, paint a picture, design an app, or create a product, it’s your intellectual property until and unless you decide to sell copyright ownership rights to someone else.

As the copyright owner, you have the exclusive right to sell, distribute, alter, and profit from your creative work. You might also decide to license the use of your work to others. For example, have you ever noticed how many movies end up with spin-off TV shows? That’s because someone licensed the characters and concept to create another piece of work.

Intellectual property can cover pretty much anything, including:

  • Brands and logos
  • Software
  • Inventions
  • Music
  • Books
  • Poems
  • Innovations on existing solutions
  • Ideas and theories
  • And more.

So how exactly does copyright protection work? There are a few different mechanisms, depending on the type of work being copyrighted.

Copyright is usually used for literary or artistic works.

Patents protect ideas, technical innovations or solutions, and inventions.

Trademarks are used by companies to distinguish their products, services, and brands from one another. Trademark protection may include logos, mascots, slogans, company names, visual identity, and other branded products.

Trade secrets are specific business processes or models that can be legally protected as IP.

Design IP rights: Designers have different options when it comes to protecting their work. The following section will dive deeper into copyright for designers.

How do design rights work?

In the US and many other countries, the designer is automatically the copyright owner of their creations, except in a work-for-hire situation (more on that below). Even if a client hires you on a freelance basis, you are the default copyright holder and may license or sell your designs to your client at your discretion.

This means there’s no need to register your designs with the relevant authorities to ensure copyright protection. However, if copyright infringement occurs, you’ll need to have copyright registration before you can fight your case.

Additionally, copyright or trademark registrations may only apply in the country of registration. So if you’re a designer in Finland distributing work in the US, you might want to register as the copyright holder with the US Copyright Office to protect your work. If you’re selling designs all over the world, you’ll need to look at each individual country’s copyright laws.

Let’s take a look at three different situations you might face as a designer and which copyright protections apply to each.

Licensed work

In most freelance contracts, the designer gives the client a license to use the specific products created for them, while the designer maintains ultimate ownership of the assets.

The client is free to use the finished products as they wish, but the designer will have control of the working files. The designer is also free to use those assets in their portfolio.


As a designer, you might get hired by a company to create a logo, brand, or website. This is a work-for-hire agreement, and in these cases, the intellectual property belongs to your employer.

This is important to bear in mind when a group of designers comes together to form a startup — initially, copyright of all design assets will be shared by all the designers. Once the startup becomes incorporated, all ownership of design assets will be transferred to the company, and no individual designer will be able to claim ownership of any design asset.

Limited license contracts and ownership transfers

As a designer, you can negotiate contracts with your clients that give them more room to use your products. Some contracts allow them to sell a limited number of iterations of your product.

For example, say you design 15 t-shirts for them, and they sell those to the public as merchandise. If they want to sell more, they’ll have to negotiate a new contract with you — even if they use the same design.

In the case of logos, your client will probably want a contract that transfers ownership to them. It’s usually a good idea for companies to own their logos as completely as possible, so they can do whatever they want with them in the future.

In such cases, a transfer of copyright ownership will be written into the contract, and you won’t own IP rights for the logo you design.

I’ve been ripped off! What should I do?

Design trends come and go — as evidenced by the recent return to maximalism in graphic design — so it’s natural to see designs sharing themes and ideas.

Some designers take that inspiration even further, creating derivative work in the form of homages and even parodies of work they admire. However, this can take design into a legal gray area and may be construed as copyright infringement.

Additionally, large companies sometimes think they can get away with stealing artist works outright — as was the case with Tuesday Bassen, who had her designs stolen by Zara back in 2016.

These companies rely on the fact that taking legal action is an expense many independent designers can’t afford. Attorney’s fees are often astronomical, and even just preparing a cease-and-desist order can run into the thousands of dollars.

However, there’s no need to despair. Many organizations provide pro-bono legal services for artists and creators, such as California Lawyers for the Arts.

So what should you do if you think your design work has been stolen?

The first step is to contact the person or organization in question. In some cases, people simply don't realize they're infringing copyright and will be more than willing to pay for your work. You can offer them a license, and everyone’s happy.

But if you get no response, or worse — a hostile response? You’ll need to take things a step further.

Start by sending a takedown notice. You can do this without a lawyer, although it’s always wise to seek legal advice before taking any legal action. In the US, you can send a takedown notice under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). The European equivalent is the EUCD (European Copyright Directive), and other countries have their own similar laws.

If that doesn’t work, try a cease and desist letter spelling out how copyright has been infringed, requesting the content be taken down, and threatening further legal action. This will require legal support, but many low-cost options are available if you look around.

Failing that, you’ll probably want to enlist the help of a lawyer if you’re sure you want to take further action. Decide whether to pursue the case or let it go by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Have you copyrighted the design patent? If not, you’ll need to register copyright ownership before taking further action.
  • Is it worth it? Do you have the time and resources to take this to court? Remember that time is money, too, and time spent fighting a court case is time lost on design work.
  • Is the infringing party from a different country? International court cases are a whole different kettle of fish that present challenges from figuring out jurisdiction to getting paid if you win.

Protect yourself and your design work

Picasso may have been an advocate of stealing, but we recommend you get familiar with the ins and outs of design copyright before trying.

When you understand how copyright works, you can protect yourself and your designs and safely take inspiration from others without infringing on their intellectual property.

And if you’re looking for royalty-free designs created by top-notch designers from around the world, join the Playbook community. You’ll find thousands of images ready to download and use in your design work — all with the artist’s permission, of course.