Book Cover Art: Ownership, Use & Copyright - Creative Law Center

Book Cover Art: Ownership, Use & Copyright

In both traditional publishing and indie/self-publishing, the cover art is a piece of intellectual property separate from the book itself. And in both cases, the ownership of the cover art and how it can be used is controlled by the interplay between copyright and contract law.

Traditionally published authors typically have the cover art for their book designed by the publishing house. Sometimes, it’s more than just a contractual benefit, it’s an honor to have cover art designed by someone like Peter Mendelsund, for instance, whose cover designs for the Stieg Larsson Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series have become iconic.

covers of Stieg Larsson series

Cover design for the Stieg Larsson series by Peter Mendelsund

While on her book tour promoting The Dutch House, Ann Patchett spoke about working with a publisher when it comes time to select the cover art for a book. In fact, she told the story of how she dealt with her publisher and ended up with the exact cover she envisioned. I expect she has a certain amount of clout in decision making for her book design. Here she describes, in a way that is both interesting and entertaining, the frustrating process of sourcing the art before she decided to commission it:

Excerpt from Midday with Tom Hall on WYPR, Baltimore. Included with permission.

I'm not sure how common it is for traditionally published authors to source their own cover art as Ann Patchett did. Self-published or indie-published authors who do not have access to a publisher's in-house designer must source cover art for their work on a regular basis either by creating it themselves or by hiring an independent cover designer.

Self-Made Cover Art

The most basic category of cover art from an ownership and copyright perspective is a cover created by the author herself using wholly original assets. By assets, I mean the photographs or other design elements from which the cover is derived, including original layout, composition, graphics, and selection of fonts.

The copyright in self-made cover art created with original assets using a distinctive arrangement and layout of individual elements is held by the creator. The author, if that is who created it, who can exercise freely the group of rights (to reproduce, distribute, and create derivatives) that attach to that original work.

The creator of that piece of original cover art can reproduce it as she likes—on t-shirts, coffee mugs or in calendars, perhaps—whether for promotional purposes or to sell commercially. Copyright law imbues the creator with those rights and the use of original assets frees the piece from contractual constraints.

However, most writers are not designers and while this approach gives an author the greatest legal freedom, it’s not necessarily the best way to obtain a quality book cover.

Cover Art Created Using a Service

Some authors create their book covers using a service like Canva.  Canva recognizes the importance of well designed book covers and has dedicated a entire section of their service to book cover creation called Book Cover Maker. Canva offers formatted cover layouts using a selection of stock photos and allows for customization of title and author information.

The copyright to book covers created on Canva (and on similar services) does not belong to an author who may have logged on and “created” it. The copyright is owned by Canva and is licensed to the author. The downloaded file comes with terms limiting how the cover may be used. Here are some of the limitations in Canva’s One Time Use License:

  • Stock Media licensed under this One Time Use License Agreement is intended for use in one single Canva Design;
mock book cover art

Example book cover, © unknown contributor via Canva.com

  • [permitted use] online or electronic publications, including web pages, blogs, ebooks and videos, limited to a maximum of 480,000 total pixels (for example: 600px x 800px) per Stock Media file where un-edited;
  • [permitted use] prints, posters (i.e. a hardcopy) and other reproductions for personal or promotional purposes, but not for resale, license or other distribution;
  • [prohibited use] use the Stock Media in a design created outside the Service; or
  • [prohibited use] either individually or in combination with others, physically reproduce the Stock Media, or an element of the Stock Media, in excess of 2,000 times.

Under Canva’s entry-level license, an author can put the cover art on a coffee mug and give the mug away as a promotional item, but cannot sell the mug. The author cannot use the cover design as part of a larger design, say a collage of the covers of all the author’s works. The author cannot print more than 2,000 physical objects with the design on it.

In response to my question about the limitations in their online service, Canva gave me this clarification:

You may certainly use your designs in both a printed book or an eBook. If you create a design using only elements you uploaded and created yourself, you can use the design as many times as you like.

Creating designs for eBooks to resell online is still within the scope of the One Time Use License. We do understand that the readers will be buying your product because of the content of your eBook and not because of the design of your cover.

If you use images and elements from Canva’s media library in your designs, there are limits on how you can use those designs, even when the elements are free. These limitations vary based on which license you choose, whether you will print the design, and many other factors. What you’re permitted to do and not permitted to do is detailed in the licenses themselves.

You may certainly use your designs in both a printed book or an eBook. If you create a design using only elements you uploaded and created yourself, you can use the design as many times as you like.

Creating designs for eBooks to resell online is still within the scope of the One Time Use License. We do understand that the readers will be buying your product because of the content of your eBook and not because of the design of your cover.

If you use images and elements from Canva’s media library in your designs, there are limits on how you can use those designs, even when the elements are free. These limitations vary based on which license you choose, whether you will print the design, and many other factors. What you’re permitted to do and not permitted to do is detailed in the licenses themselves.

Although, for a price, Canva offers licenses that permit a broader range of uses, there are some limitations that can’t be avoided at any price. Subject matter limitations in Canva-created book covers might prohibit use on books in the erotica genres, for instance.

The point is that once an author uses the creative work of others in their book cover art, the copyright does not belong to the author and use of the work is limited by contract, by a license. The limitations of that license need to be understood. Otherwise, it could be an infringing use.

Cover Art Created By an Independent Cover Artist

Most experts in the field recommend that self-published authors hire a professional cover artist to create their book cover.

Professional cover art falls into two categories: the first is a cover created using assets original to the artist; the second is a cover created or derived from stock art or photography licensed from a third party like iStock.

In either case, the copyright to the cover art does not belong to the author who commissions the piece unless: (1) the cover artist is the holder of the copyright and (2) the artist transfers the copyright in writing to the author. Transfer of the digital file of the work is not transfer of the copyright.

Cover art is considered a supplementary work under copyright law, that means it is secondary to and assists in the use of the book. Because it is a supplementary work, it can be considered a “work made for hire.” If those two conditions are met (the cover artist owns the copyright and transfers it in writing) then, and only then, will the copyright in the cover art belong to the author.

Work made for hire agreements must be signed before the work is created. If you want to obtain the rights after the work has already been created, you need a copyright assignment or transfer agreement.

The author does not have unlimited rights to cover art merely because she commissioned the piece. The author bought the cover, not the copyright to the cover unless there is a written transfer. The use of the cover in the absence of a copyright transfer is going to depend on the contract between the author and the cover artist.

You Cannot Transfer What You Do Not Own

In many cases, the cover artist does not own the rights to transfer. You cannot transfer what you do not own. The artist can only license, or transfer, the limited rights granted by the third party vendor from whom the underlying assets were originally licensed.

book cover art example

Cover art by Reese Dante

For example, the cover of Stranger in Town was created by cover artist and designer Reese Dante using a combination of three different licensed images enhanced with individualized changes, textures and particular fonts.

The cover artist, in this case, does not own the copyright to the underlying images and cannot transfer what is not owned. The artist should specify the limitations on the use of the cover art in the contract with the author (any limits on print copies; physical reproduction for promotional use only, not commercial use, etc.) The author is bound by the terms of the license agreement with the third party vendor, as is the cover artist. If the author exceeds the bounds of the license, the artist could be held responsible.

A cover artist who creates a piece using their own original creative assets can transfer the copyright in the completed work to the author. Again, to be effective, the transfer must be in writing. The author is then free to use the cover art without limitation. In this scenario, I recommend that the artist retain portfolio rights; authors generally have no problem with this.

In either case, there should be a provision in the contract where the artist warrants that the work is either original or properly licensed. If the artist infringes the work of someone else, the self-published author could be held responsible. If the author gives the artist a creative asset to use in the cover design, the author should give the same warranty.

Books Covers in Traditional Publishing

The copyright in book covers created by designers who are employees of traditional publishing houses belongs to the publishing house. The cover art is considered a “work made for hire” under the law, but because the designer is an employee and the work is created within the scope of his employment (meaning it was his job to design the cover), no writing is needed to transfer ownership of the copyright to the publisher.

In short, a traditionally published author typically does not own the cover art to his book. The publishing contract should provide the details on how an author can use the cover art during the term of the contract.

When a traditional publishing contract ends, for whatever reason, and rights revert to the author for the book, those rights do not include the right to use the cover. When an author switches publishers, or self-publishes, new cover art needs to be created.

When Chuck Wendig changed publishers for his Miriam Black series, his books were reissued with new covers.

example of cover redesign for traditionally published book

Original cover on the left. New cover on the right.

Copyright and contracts (licenses, transfers and publishing contracts) combine to determine who owns the rights to book cover art and how those rights can be used. Whether you are an author or an artist, you should be clear on what those rights are and who owns them.

feature photo credit: PixelAnarchy

Updated: October 1, 2019

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Book Cover Art: Ownership, Use & Copyright

About the Author

Kathryn Goldman helps small business people, writers, artists, and creative professionals make a living from their creative work by teaching them how to protect and enforce their rights. She is an attorney who writes these posts to help you be more thoughtful about intellectual property and the law as you build your business, write your stories, and create your art.

  • D says:

    Hi Kathryn, Great article thank you for the info. What if I were self-publishing a planner and wanted to use for the cover a photo I took of a layout of tarot cards (I bought) on my desk, basically will throw them in the air and have them fall where they may and take a photo. The tarot cards are sold by US games and of course the art on the tarot cards are by a specific artist.

  • Duncan says:

    I allowed limited use of my art as the cover of a book. Book title and text was written over my already created design, by the publishers inhouse designer and they were given full credit/ acknowledgement for the front cover. Is this copyright infringement?

  • I’ve been asked by an author to use my artwork they found on Pinterest on their cover. I’m a residential house designer and it’s a rendering of one of my plans. What should I charge for this?

  • Beth says:

    Amazon is giving me a hard time over a cover photo I bought from a reputable book cover company. They keep saying it violates copyright! Even after the company itself sent a letter to them explaining the rights Amazon still says I can’t use the photo. I don’t get it. Never had this problem before and I’ve had numerous cover photos made with this company.

  • Mick says:

    Thanks for a very informative piece. My book is to be titled “Get Back: The Extraordinary Adventures of Desmond Jones”. A friend is designing the cover on which I would like to include images of the Beatles. These would be original drawings but based in the images on the “Rubber Soul” album. Whilst I think I can use “Get Back” as part of the title on the cover, would I be able to use the images described above? Any help would be greatly appreciated. Many Thanks,
    Mick L

  • E. Rene' says:

    Hello. Great site; very informative! Unless I missed it, the question of “HOW to legally copyright MY own book cover,” was not answered. I am the author of the book and created the cover myself using wholly original assets. I am getting ready to submit my manuscript to the LoC. Do I submit the book’s cover along with the manuscript, separately or is there another way? Thank you so much!
    E. Rene’

    • It is a straight forward process. A copyright application can filed on a book cover design as a work of visual art, just like for a painting.

  • Sam says:

    Hi! If there is a proper contract between author and artist with provision in the contract where the artist warrants that the work is either original or properly licensed, but someone comes at you for copyright infringement over a stock photo used, how does the provision actually protect me? Am I not still responsible anyway?

    • Excellent question. Yes, you are still responsible for using an infringing work. The warranty of originality in the contract with the book cover designer means that if the work created by the designer does infringe someone else, you have a breach of contract claim against the designer. So, if the infringement claim against you is successful, you can turn around and recover your losses against the designer. There should also be an indemnity provision in the design contract that makes this doubly clear and expressly permits you to recover attorneys fees if that happens.

      You can learn more about working with designers and obtain a copy of a form contract here: Book Covers: Tips, Trends, and Traps to Avoid for Better Book Sales [Workshop Replay]

      • Sam says:

        Thank you much! I believe I will take the workshop you suggested! It seems well worth the money!!

  • Alex Le says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    Thank you for your post.

    I have a small (or not) query. The situation is that I’m about to open a small coffee shop of which the concept is inspired by bookstores. I am thinking about printing out the images of some 30 book covers on the internet for the wall decoration. The size of the images will be adjusted to 5 x 7 inches on A4 paper to match the overall design. I’m living in Vietnam currently and the book covers are not from Vietnamese publisher. I hope I could do that to promote reading habit and create a really good vibe through out the shop.

    I am looking forward to your reply.

    Thanks,

    Alex

  • FATEN IZZATY says:

    Hi Kathryn, thank you for this post! I found it relevant for my business project. However i still have a question in mind. For example i am planning to open a book subscription store like Fairyloot or illumicrate where they will create exclusive book cover for existing book to sell. Let’s say i want to create a book cover for a famous YA author, how the process will be? Do i need to contact the publishing company and the author to send my book cover design? Really looking forward for your reply.

  • Kate Fester says:

    Hi there!
    I just came across a website that is producing facsimiles of vintage dust jackets and selling them for profit. Is this legal? I feel like I could be doing the exact same thing, but I would assume that I would be infringing on the artist’s or author’s copyrights. Please help me understand. Thank you!

  • M says:

    Thank you! This is so helpful! I’m trying to get a cover created for my soon to be self-published book. I got a sample cover and did a Google image search and found the image used in at least five other places. I’m now trying to get a refund from the company this freelancer is affiliated with. You helped confirm my concerns that I could have the original artist come after me for using their art.

  • Marion says:

    How much should an independent cover model charge for use of his image?

  • Will says:

    I own an original painting by a very obscure but not totally unknown dead painter. I want to use it as the cover of my novel. Am I good to go or do I need to contact the estate?

  • Lisa says:

    I created a logo, which is incorporated into the title of my book. I own the trademark to this logo. Other than this, there is no other cover art. I used a self publishing company probably about eight years ago and never did anything with the book. I want to self publish and sell the book on my own website or possibly consider through Amazon. Can I use the exact same book cover that I originally created?

  • Pamela Judge says:

    I want to self publish a book using a painting that I did based on a photo in a newspaper.
    Would there be a problem with this?

  • Lisa Greig says:

    Hi Kathryn! I used images from Canva (professional) to illustrate my book, including the cover. Who gets illustration credit? I also have permission from the original author to use the primary image.

  • Celia Batte says:

    I would like to use a picture of my grandparents house for the cover of my book. They have been gone for years but the house is owned by someone else now. Can I still use the picture?

    • There are two issues here, Celia, the copyright to the photograph and the privacy rights of the property owner. You need permission from the photographer to use the image on the cover of your book. If you took the picture, you’re good to go. Generally speaking, the property owners cannot prevent you from using an image of their house for your book cover if the image was taken from a public location. If it’s a recent image, be sure that it does not depict any personal items of the current owner.

  • I would like to use a Tom Thomson painting for the cover of my new book. As the artist has been dead since 1917, do I need to worry about copyright infringement?

  • David says:

    Hi, I wonder if you can help? I’m an artist who has been contacted by an author asking if they can use one of my paintings as a book cover. As I have no experience in licensing my work or terms of use, I’m at a real loss regarding how to proceed with all of this and would be grateful if anyone can illuminate me with the legalities and how I should move forward. Thanks in advance.

    • David,
      In order to license your work to the author for use as a book cover, I recommend a written agreement that sets out exactly how the work can be used — print, ebook, audiobook, promotional materials, etc. with appropriate credit. It should be a limited, non-exclusive license. I also suggest that it be a fixed price, not a royalty based, deal. The August 2020 Creative Law Center workshop — Book Covers: Tips, Trends, and Traps to Avoid for Better Book Sales — covered this issue in detail. A downloadable, customizable Image License Agreement is included that you can use for this deal and any in the future. You can join the membership and get access to the workshop replay and the document download here: https://creativelawcenter.com/membership-registration/.

  • Mary Owens says:

    I have a question. If I create my own cover for my self published book and already have my book copyrighted Can I change the artwork on the cover of my book Without having to get another copy right for the entire book? In other words I just want a nicer looking cover but hope I don’t have to copyright the entire book again Since the title Author text and everything inside is still the same. Could Somebody please tell me the answer to this??? I would consider this an allowable minor change but am I correct?

    • You do not need to file a new copyright application for the content of the book when you change the cover. The book is protected by the original registration. You can file another application on the new cover alone, apart from the book. It’s a separate creative work.

  • Karen says:

    I have recently been approached by a publishing company in Korea. They want to use an image of a painting of mine that I did 10+ years ago. I have never had this request before. I feel like I should be paid for the actual image but I don’t want them to be able to use it for anything else. Is there a contract template that I can use specifically for this situation? I know a well known artist whose painting was on a cover of a book in Italy and he had no idea about it. They basically stole the image and he was never compensated. Anyway, if you have thoughts about this, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!

    • Karen,
      The document I would recommend is a license agreement. In it, you give the publishing company the right to use your painting on the cover of the book only. You control how many printed copies, ebook covers, audio book covers, languages, etc. You do not transfer over the copyright. If they want the right to create merchandise, the price goes up. This is how you create multiple revenue streams from your creative work.

  • J says:

    I wrote a book several years ago and had it published with a small independent publisher. I created and designed the entire cover of my book, which included the title and a logo that I successfully trademarked. It is now registered. I never marketed or sold the book as I wasn’t ready to do anything with it. I would now like to have the book printed through a printing company and sell it myself online. Since I’m not using a new publisher, can I still use my original cover?

  • Glenn says:

    Hello

    I want to a classic novel cover for a non-fiction ebook, it was an illustration done in 1951. I could not find the rights, Wikipedia lists the image as public domain, and the original art can be licences on artres.com, alamy stock photos and heritage-images.com. The image has also been turned into various prints and other memorabilia.

    Is it ok to use?

  • Annabeth says:

    I commissioned a cover from an independent cover designer for an ebook. If I decide sometime in the future that I want to produce an audio book, or hard cover, can I use the ebook cover without going back to the original cover designer? Do I need permission to use the ebook cover for different formats of the same book? Note: the cover designer used stock photos, and commercial fonts to create the cover– none which belong to her. Thanks for your help.

  • CR says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    Thanks for a great article – this is really helpful. I have a question for you: I’m an author/illustrator in the process of publishing my first two books. I have created all of the art for the book, including the cover. Do I need separate copyright statements for the text, illustrations, and cover, or are they all covered in one copyright statement?

    • All creative elements can be protected by one copyright registration — the art, the text, and the cover. You need one application for each book. You can designate it as a literary work or a work of visual art. Congratulations on finishing your first two books.

  • KM says:

    I did some illustrations for a vanity publisher who still reprints her books with my name on the cover despite me asking her not to. It causes me distress but i haven’t a clue how to stop her. We have just as much right to ask NOT to be credited surely?!

  • Hi – Thank you for all the helpful information. I work for a small start-up publisher. One of our authors wants to translate her book into Chinese for distribution in China. She would like to use the same cover art as the book we produced in English. Our company owns the copyright to the cover art. We’re considering granting her permission in exchange for per-sale royalties. Is this done in the publishing world (royalties to a publisher) or is it more customary to go with a one time transaction?

  • keith long says:

    Is there a category of professionals I can pay to obtain multiple copyright privileges for pictures in my nonfiction book?

    • You can license images for use in your nonfiction book from services like Shutterstock or Getty images. They offer different licenses depending on your intended uses, ebook or print for example. Or you could hire a design professional to create custom images for you as a work for hire in which case you would own the images.

  • I have 2 artists contributing to my upcoming book. One artist is strictly completing the cover art. I had already planned to credit the illustrations to one of the artists but because of the multiple artists, would it be logical to credit both artists on the cover of the book?

    • Ray,
      Credit to the illustrator usually goes on the cover of the book. Credit to the cover artist usually goes in the front matter or on the copyright page of the book, in the interior.
      Kathryn

  • Beth says:

    I am on the board of a small non-profit that all benefits go toward a small individual library, we are in a small town parade and wanted to use covers of various different childrens book on our float, we thought it a good idea to promote reading. My question is this, does each book illustrator or publisher need to be contacted, or is it ok to actually just have them printed up because were promoting and not selling anything?

  • Hello there! Thanks for the info! I have a question: Can I use book covers in a blog post? Do you have an idea?

    • Well . . . seeing as I used a bunch in this post, I feel confident that you can.

      • Thanks! Just wanted to be sure 😀

      • Catherine Parsons says:

        Hi Kathryn, can you please clear up a matter that keeps coming up on Facebook groups for followers of TV design shows? Some insist that books are put in backwards on shelving as to stay clear of copyright issues. I don’t believe that is correct. Can you please settle this debate? Thank you!

  • Kim Reynolds says:

    I have sort of a side question on cover design. I am starting out as a cover designer, so do not yet have a big portfolio. I’ve wondered if I can design covers for existing books strictly to show my take on the design. For example, could I design a cover for The Handmaid’s Tale using that title and Atwood’s name, strictly to include in an online portfolio, and making it clear that it is a “tribute” cover that is not available or authorized?

    • Kim,

      Essentially you’re talking about what I would call concept covers, made to show how you would have designed the cover of a well known book if the job had been yours. You’re demonstrating your skills, your expression of the idea of a cover for that particular book, in a way that would potentially appeal to authors in similar genres looking to commission book covers for their work. It’s not copyright infringement because you are creating original work and titles of books aren’t protected by copyright. If you make it clear that neither the authors nor the publishers of the original books endorse your work so there’s no confusion by your prospective clients, I think you have very little risk.

  • Lilia says:

    Kathryn-thanks for the info, as always.
    I have a question. If I create a self-made cover for my already copyrighted novel (my own photo, my design, font, etc.) do I still need to copyright the cover separately?
    Much appreciated.
    Lily

    • Lilia,
      If you created the cover yourself and own all the rights to it, then you can include the cover as part of the application for the book using the One Work by One Author application.

  • Robin says:

    Kathryn I learned quite a bit reading this article; however, I have a question that does not seem to be posted here. I own a print, 106/150 by a prominent artist who is deceased. I took a photograph of the print and would like to use it as part of my cover. I am unsure if this is permissible. If it is not permissible to use as a cover; can it be used within the book giving the appropriate credit?

    • Robin,
      Copyright lasts for the life of the artist plus 70 years. Unless the artist died more than 70 years ago, you need permission to use the image on the cover or in the interior of the book. Giving credit is not permission. You need to track down the Estate.
      Kathryn

  • William says:

    Anyone know if I can use 2 words in my 5 word book title that are the same as someone else’s whole title . My book is completely different in every way.

  • Tabitha says:

    I’d like to use stock photos to create pre-made ebook covers to sell to authors online. What license would I need? I’ve heard conflicting answers.

  • Ed says:

    How should an indy author secure permission to use a historical painting as part of a book cover? By historical painting, I mean one where the artist died many decades/centuries ago.

  • Ismail says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    Thank you for taking time to answer all our questions here. I’m independently publishing my first book. In talks with an artist about commissioning him on creating an original art work for the cover art of book. As far as licensing goes, I requested exclusive rights for the duration of the book’s life. He was okay with exclusive but responded back with a 2 year deal. That sound really short to me. What is the norm in book publishing for length of the term of the rights? I appreciate your time.

  • amita says:

    I am a freelance artist . Someone wants to use one of my original paintings as the cover page of her novel.
    What should be the terms of our agreement ?
    Can I sell the artwork separately after it has been used as a cover page ?
    How should it be priced for the cover page ?
    How should the copyright be handled ?

    • Amita,

      The typical scenario is to license your art for use as a book cover. The terms of the license (whether its exclusive or not, how much to charge, where your art can appear, how many different uses, etc.) are completely within your control. You can sell your original art after you license it if you want to. Even when you sell your art, you still control the copyright to it.

      If you are interested in learning about my services for drafting a license agreement for your art, send me an email and we can talk.

      Kathryn

  • Sandy Stevens says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    I found an image that I want to use as a bookcover on the internet. I tried finding the author/owner to obtain permission, but with no luck.
    Can I use the image?

    • Sandy,

      When you can’t find the owner of an image that is subject to copyright protection in order to secure permission, the image is called an orphan work. The Copyright Office says, “For good faith users, orphan works are a frustration, a liability risk, and a major cause of gridlock in the digital marketplace.” There is no solution to this problem at the moment. My recommendation is to chose another image that you can properly license, or commission a new image. Probably not what you wanted to hear.

      Kathryn

  • SMurdock says:

    Hello,
    What is the easiest and fastest way to find out if a dust jacket or dust jacket art is still protected if the book it covers is no longer in print, please? The books I have are part of a defunct series from the 40s and 50s.

    • Nothing is easy and fast when it comes to researching copyright ownership for out of print works. Sad but true. The place to start, however, is with the chart published by Cornell University: Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the United States. It’s a great resource, but for that time period, you’ll need to do further research at the Copyright Office which may or may not have the information you need online.

  • Kasthuri says:

    Hello, Kathryn.
    This is such a helpful article. Thank you so much for putting together all this info.
    I have a question, please.
    I created an original artwork (painting) for an independent author. The author after negotiating the price said that she thought she was going to own the original art, after I had mentioned to her that I would like to keep the original art and transmit the image to her electronically.
    I did not get a contract with her…… Silly of me, I know.
    What have I gotten myself into here?
    If she purchased my original art do I lose my rights to use it in other places? Or if she just bought the design and not the art, ‘am I allowed to still sell the original art to another?
    As you can tell, I’m confused.
    Thank you for any clarity and guidance you can provide.

    • Kasthuri,

      Contracts are generally a good idea, they manage everyone’s expectations. Yes, so next time . . . .

      But when there is no contract for a book cover design, the designer continues to own the copyright in the work. The author has what is called an implied license to use the art for the cover of their book and related marketing materials. The license is not exclusive and the author cannot prevent you from selling, displaying, or licensing the artwork elsewhere. Whether licensing the same art to another author for a different book makes good business sense is another question entirely.

      Here’s a link to a simple chart that explains ownership rights: Book Cover Copyright Ownership Guide

      Feel free to share it with the author.

      Kathryn

      • Kasthuri says:

        Thank you so very
        much!!!!

  • Joseph Peters says:

    I want to use a use Jean Charlot’s, November 25, 1949, “Relation of Man and Nature in Old Hawaiʻi” mural as the cover to a free E-book for the public about information to help plan for the end of life.

    Can I use this image? Should I ask for copyright privileges, or are protected under ‘fair use’?

    • That piece is still protected by copyright. Given its size, you’re probably just using a detail, right? Whether it’s a fair use will depend on a fair use analysis of your finished cover. You may be able to get permission from the Estate given the topic of your work.

  • Jim says:

    Quick question: Can an author legally include a company logo on his book cover. Specifically, if parts of the story were featured on the PBS “Nature” television program, can he add the PBS and/or “Nature” logotypes to the cover artwork? Thank you!

    • Adding the logos would be considered an endorsement of your book by PBS Nature. If they endorsed the book, using the logo would be fair. If they included part of the story unrelated to the book itself, say from an article you wrote or an interview you gave, that could be a problem.

  • Scott K Crandall says:

    I own several older hardbound books that have sustained cover damage. I have seen a website that will print “new” covers for a fee, but I am wondering about getting a service like FedX Office to simply print one for me from my original, or from a digital image. Since I own the book, I own the cover for the book, and I would think that for my personal use (not re-sale) I would have the right to do so, Is this correct?

    • I think there is little to no risk involved in replacing the cover of a book you own by printing a copy for personal use.

  • Simone says:

    Hello! Thank you so much for this informative article.
    I am completely new to the world of cover design. I was approached by a publisher about a book cover- they want to use one of my own original designs that they came across on the internet. I am waiting for the contract, but I would assume since it is my own design that the copyright would go to me. If they claim that I cannot claim the copyright of it, am I able to refute that? It might be slightly more complicated because it isn’t just sending over the design, I have to recreate it in a medium they can use- I did the design with colored pens on a copy of my book and they need me to redo it in black on a white background (which I will do digitally). Newbie here so any advice is super appreciated. Have a great day!

    • Simone,

      You own the rights to work that you create. If you created new art on top of one of the publisher’s book covers it could be considered transformative. They need to license it from you, or you could sell them the copyright.

  • Peter Twohig says:

    Hi, Kathryn.
    HarperCollins have published two of my novels, and because the second was a ‘stand alone’ sequel, they used a similar style of artwork and font. They have declined the third book in the trilogy, however for financial reasons. I would therefore like to publish it myself. Can I use the same style of artwork (the colour scheme and illustrations would be different) and a similar font? Thanks in advance. Peter

    • Peter,
      In theory, it can be done. Remember that the touch point for infringement is substantial similarity. It strikes me that you should be able to use a cover on the third book that is different from the first two with different images and color schemes but which echos the style. You may have to license the font. That way you can create harmony in the appearance across the three book covers without risk of infringement. Without a side-by-side comparison of the actual covers, I can’t give you a more concrete answer.
      Kathryn

      • Peter Twohig says:

        Thanks, Kathryn. Yes, that’s what I had intended. Thanks for your help. Peter.

  • KK says:

    Is an artist legally able to be hired to paint book cover bindings in school libraries as murals?

    • If you are taking the physical book covers, or bindings, off of actual books owned by the library and using them to create a mural, there’s no copyright infringement because there’s no copying. If you are scanning or reproducing the covers then putting them into a mural, that’s copying but it might be fair use if you are transforming the creative work of others into something new and different.

      Sounds like a great project.

      • KK says:

        Thanks for your response! The mural would be painting actual book bindings (including art & type) around poles in a school library as a way to encourage students to read the books. Is that transformative enough or would permission need to be granted by the publisher or cover artist? Again, it is only the bindings being used.

        • KK says:

          One other clarification – it is not the actual book bindings being used, but a painting of the bindings being painted on the poles. Thanks!

  • betty says:

    My question is more about using a book cover in my arts and crafts business. My guess is that it is indeed infringement using an image in my products that I sell…am I correct?

  • Prag says:

    Hi

    Thank you so much for such a comprehensive piece of useful information.

    An author approached me to use my art as a cover for his book. Now, I know this is highly subjective but still (like there are thumb rules to price your artwork depending on the stage of career or size of the painting) is there any guideline to how should you price your artwork’s use on someone’s book cover. Can this be derived with respect to the cost of the original art work.
    Let’s say he is buying the rights to use my painting for his book cover to use on the first edition of the publication. The publishing house seems like a good one too. And this is his 3rd book.

    Thanks in advance!!

    • Prag,

      Pricing art is an art form itself. One way to get to a number is to take a look at the Getty images pricing calculator. If other readers of this post have experience in this area, I invite them to weigh in on this question.

  • A.B. Pieratt says:

    How long does publisher hold rights to the cover….not just artwork
    but quotes by other authors….Don’t the words of a reviewer or
    other author remain their intellectual property? Even if publisher
    no longer keeps book in print?

    • Interesting question, A.B. Unless there is a contract with the reviewers, the publisher doesn’t own their reviews. Short quotes generally aren’t protected by copyright. Plus, you need to check your contract with the publisher to make sure there’s no prohibition on your use.

  • Willard Ferguson says:

    I see pictures of my navy ship on clothing items. I don’t think they needed to get rights to it. I want to use a stock photo for a book cover.

  • Steve Ince says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    This is an excellent piece but I have a question on cover artwork that I don’t think you mentioned.
    I’ve been asked to create a cover for a semi-pro/small-press magazine that concentrates on cult TV. One of the articles inside looks at a specific episode from a 1970s Gerry Anderson series, UFO, and the people at the magazine asked me to create a cover based on this.
    While I’m not using any stock images or photographs – the cover is completely hand-drawn – I based the image on a scene from the episode with likenesses of two of the main characters. After a brief discussion about the copyrights involved in creating such an image, I’m now unsure of where I and the magazine stand in regards to copyright.

  • Massey says:

    Kathryn,

    Thank you for this article.

    Question, I’m looking to self- publish my Young Adult Fiction book within the next few months. For cover art, I am considering using a (friend) photographer to capture an image of models (family and friends) to be used as the cover of my book. The models will be minors and I’m looking to only have the backs of their heads/ bodies shown for the used picture. The photo will possibly also be used for my website, flyers, promotional material and and other associated use or sales.

    Any advice on releases, licensing and copyrights?

    Massey

    • Massey,

      Congratulations on publishing your YA novel. I recommend that you get an assignment of copyright from the photographer and model releases from the models. For the models who are minors, the releases need to be signed by their guardians. Make sure the releases are broad enough to permit all the uses you are planning.

  • Leo Lazo says:

    Hi there, thank you for the article, very informative.
    I have software that is run in school libraries, I would like to download book covers from Google and Amazon and store them locally so they can be displayed when the students search for a book. Is that breaking any copywriter?

    Thanks in advance

    Leo

  • Keshia says:

    If you agree to a buyout for the novel cover design if you are selling your book on a site like Amazon are you crediting the photographer as the illustrator or the graphic designer as the illustrator?

  • Margaret Dunham says:

    I ama photographer (nonprofessional) and interested in designing book covers from my pictures. What is legal to photograph and use, and what is not? For example, may I photograph street graffiti or a mural and crop it to size for a cover?
    Thank you for your answer.

    • Street artists own the copyright to their work and you need permission to use it. For instance, I licensed the background image on the home page of this site.

  • Hi, thanks for the article !
    I’m an illustrator and would like to get more work for book cover design. Since I haven’t done many in the past, I would like to create personal projects of existing book of which I would re-design the cover (no commercial purpose, only to put on my portfolio). Would there be any restriction?

    Thanks a lot for your time !