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.
Self-published or indie-published authors who do not have access to an in-house designer must source cover art for their work 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.
Download Our 1-page Fair Use Guide
Use this quick and easy guide to help you decide whether a use you plan to make of someone else's work is fair, or if someone has made fair use of your work.
Cover Art Created Using a Service
Some authors create their book covers using a service like Canva. Canva offers formatted cover layouts using a selection of stock photos and allows for some 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;
- [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.
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.
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.
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.
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