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

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.

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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;
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.

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.

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

About the Author

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

  • 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.

  • 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 !

    • Delphie,

      I love this idea! Let’s break it down a little. Your plan is to redesign the cover art for certain books to showcase your work. You will not be using cover art created by someone else. So, there’s no infringement there. The titles of books are not protected by copyright. So, no infringement there. If you were to put your newly designed book covers side-by-side with the originals as a comparison, I think that would be fair use.

      I would point out that portfolio use is a commercial use. The purpose of a portfolio is to show potential customers the quality of your work so you can get jobs, right? That’s a commercial use. But commercial use, in and of itself, doesn’t mean it’s an infringement if the other elements of fair use weigh more heavily.

      Be sure to come back and share your work with us.

      • Delphie says:

        Aww thanks a lot for your reply, it’s really helpful! Right, it makes a lot of sense for my portfolio to fall into commercial use.

        I’ll make sure to come back and share a link of the finished pieces 🙂

  • Beloved says:

    Can I sell my paperback novel and e-book that has a cover I designed on Canva using the images provide by Canva?

    • Canva is designed to let authors create covers for books they plan to sell. Follow Canva’s rules and you’re good to go.

  • Barbara says:

    Hello, I have paid an artist to make a cover for my book. He designed it completely on his own but it’s based on a picture of a famous artifact. No stock pictures, no copies of photos were used. The cover is original. The artist says I can use the cover, but I’d like to have a legal agreement made between us before I do so. Also, I want to copyright both the cover and the book, if I can, with the artist’s approval. Can I do that and is there a legal form I would use to make the agreement? Thank your for your time.

    • Barbara,

      The document you need is a transfer or assignment of copyright. A work for hire agreement could have resulted in you owning copyright to the cover, but that needs to be signed before the work is created. Assignments of copyright are contracts that I prepare for my clients on a regular basis. Feel free to contact me about it.

      Kathryn

      • Barbara says:

        Thank you, Kathryn, for getting back to me. One more question, please. If the cover artist hasn’t copyrighted the cover, is there another legal agreement form I can use to have him sign over the rights for use of the cover. As I’ve said, he’s already agreed to my using it, but I want something legal before I self-publish.

        • Barbara,

          Your cover artist does not need to have filed for a copyright registration on the cover in order for the transfer or assignment of copyright to be effective. Remember that copyright exists at the moment of creation. Registration is only required to enforce your rights. Once he does sign the cover over to you, you can file an application on your book as author of the book and as claimant on the book and the cover.

          • Barbara says:

            Kathryn, thanks again for my answer. Would you email me how much you might charge to do a transfer or assignment of copyright for me? Thanks so much.

  • Jori Rushing says:

    Hi! Thank you So much For your Arcticle . I have a question ive Started a small Clothing company inspired by vintage 1940’s -1950’s comics covers and some vintage women empowering novel cover such As christine garnier “fetish” novel collection i would like to use the cover art posssibly alter it with overlaying typography i would like to deadicate the T shirt to her in the product overview such as “1951 Christine Garnier Fetish Tshirt ”
    but she deceased but her book is still be sold on amazon im in love vintage era and inspired to promote women empowerment from it but i want to make sure im doing it right or if i even can Please Help

    • That’s a tough one, Jori.

      First of all, did Christine Garnier write the novel or create the cover art? The Garnier Estate may have no rights to the cover art. Secondly, in 1951, a copyright lasted for a first term of 28 years. The copyright was eligible for renewal during the final, that is, 28th year, of the first term. If renewed, the copyright was extended for a second, or renewal, term of 28 years. If it was not renewed, the copyright expired at the end of the first 28-year term, and the work is no longer protected by copyright.

      In order to be sure that you can use the art, you would need to have the work cleared or a fair use analysis done.

  • Jay says:

    Hi! I created a book cover from a photo purchased from a stock photo site. I understand that my rights are limited for the photo, however, after creating my book cover with said photo, I’m seeing nearly identical covers on other books. I understood that with the purchase, my rights to the photo were limited BUT does that mean the finished product is not mine?

  • Jennifer Wells says:

    Hello,
    If I create an ebook cover in Canva using my own photograph but Canva fonts—What are the legal constraints for my ebook cover? Thank you.

  • Tara says:

    Can I use a picture of the cover of a book in a mailing if i cite the author?

    • Tara, I need a bit more information about your mailing to give you a good answer. But, if you are talking about the book or reviewing the book in the mailing, you can use a picture of it. Identifying the author is probably a good idea, too.

  • D says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    Thank you for such an informative article! I just have a quick question: I run a small independent press and have been working with a cover artist to design covers for a trilogy; however, she has been designing them one at a time with images and font styles that me and the author have chosen. The artist has done the first two books in the series but has increased her prices astronomically and was considering going with a different artist for the third book. We would purchase the images and we already own the license to the font. Is there an issue here? The new cover artist that I contacted about this asked if we had permission to recreate the brand? I’ve never heard of that before and just want to see if this concern has merit or if I am required (if I want to keep continuity) to use the first artist in order to maintain the consistency of the brand.

    Thank you for your help!

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Brand is term that is used in trademark law, not copyright. It can mean a reference to the overall look and feel of a creative design or packaging. The first artist cannot have trademark rights to the covers of the first two books in the series. It is unlikely that the layout of the first two covers without regard to the images and font will be considered creative enough to be protected by copyright. A new artist can design the cover for the third book in the series using creative assets (the font, images) that you license elsewhere.

  • Rose says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    Thank you so much for a very informative article. Could you confirm my understanding of the following scenario is correct? Scenario: I create my own book cover on Canva, using their free elements. I publish it on amazon, kobo, ibooks, etc. as an ebook. I also offer it as a print-on-demand book. This is a violation of Canva’s terms, because I’m selling the books — not giving them away as promotional material, correct? Thank you!

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Rose,

      What you describe is not a violation of Canva’s terms. Canva doesn’t want you selling their creative elements separately, of course. But Canva expects and encourages you to use their service and creative elements to design book covers for books that you will actively sell.

      Those licenses can be confusing. Good question.

  • T. Black says:

    Hi Kathryn,
    Thank you for this article. I’m a book cover designer. Some of my work is through an online platform that connects freelancers with clients. They claim that since I’m a work-for-hire, that clients will automatically “own” the design once it’s paid in full. Yet, every time I’m hired, I have to click a box that says I agree to their TOS. Like you said, how do I grant ownership of something I don’t own? Below is a section of the online platform’s TOS.

    OWNERSHIP OF WORK PRODUCT AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
    Upon Freelancer’s receipt of full payment from Client, the Work Product, including without limitation all Intellectual Property Rights in the Work Product, will be the sole and exclusive property of Client, and Client will be deemed to be the author thereof. If Freelancer has any Intellectual Property Rights to the Work Product that are not owned by Client upon Freelancer’s receipt of payment from Client, Freelancer hereby automatically irrevocably assigns to Client all right, title and interest worldwide in and to such Intellectual Property Rights. Except as set forth above, Freelancer retains no rights to use, and will not challenge the validity of Client’s ownership in, such Intellectual Property Rights. Freelancer hereby waives any moral rights, rights of paternity, integrity, disclosure and withdrawal or inalienable rights under applicable law in and to the Work Product. If payment is made only for partial delivery of Work Product, the assignment described herein applies only to the portion of Work Product delivered.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      If you are using licensed assets to book cover, you need to advise the client of the limits on those licenses. The other option is to use only original assets that you create or those that are provided by the client. I can understand why the online platform wants to deliver copyright to their customers. That’s what authors want, but authors need to understand licensing limitations.

  • K M Idamari says:

    Hello,
    This is quite a comprehensive post. I wasn’t aware of half the stuff here before. Thank you 🙂

    There’s this “Stock Media file” use restriction (on Canva):

    ” 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;”

    How does this make sense when Canva offers templates for ebook covers that are greater than 480,000px? What does the clause, “where unedited”, mean? Can you help?

    ~K

    • Simple says:

      I have the same question too. Canva generates 3book covers that are 2250×1410 pixels. So, does it mean that Canva generated e-book covers can’t be used for ebook according to their licensing restriction of 480,000 pixels? What is the point of providing this feature then?

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      My understanding of this bit of the license is that your completed design can be greater than 600px x 800px if you incorporate other elements and edit the design as a whole. The limitation means that you can’t use a stock media file by itself if it is bigger than 600px x 800px.

      The recommended size for an Amazon book cover is 1600 px x 2560 px and I can’t imagine that Canva wants to prevent the use of its designs for Amazon book covers.

      I have reached out to Canva for clarification on this point and will report back when I hear from them.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      I’ve heard back from Canva.

      This what I asked:

      “My question is about the Stock Media limitation of 600 px by 800 px per Stock Media file where unedited. I understand this to mean that my completed design can be greater than 600 x 800 if I incorporate other elements and edit them. The limitation is that I can’t use a stock media file bigger than 600 x 800 by itself. Do I understand this correctly? I ask this because the recommended size for an Amazon book cover is 1600 px x 2560 px and I can’t imagine that Canva wants to prevent the use of its designs for Amazon book covers.”

      And this is what they have to say:

      “Yes, you are correct. The limit is only for a standalone image, if unedited.

      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.

      Please check out the terms and conditions for the different licenses available in this article: https://about.canva.com/terms-of-use/.

      I hope this helps!”

      I think they cleared that up nicely.

  • AC K. says:

    Kathryn Goldman wrote, “…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.”

    I would include a third important condition:

    The book author can obtain the copyright to a freelancer’s art contribution per any one of work-made-for-hire’s nine statutory components, IF a written agreement is secured PRIOR to the start of the work. If the author skips getting this agreement BEFORE the commissioned work begins, the author really only has a (non-exclusive, limited) license, while the freelance artist has leverage to negotiate a higher fee.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Nice clarification. Thank you.

  • Ilka says:

    Hi Kathryn!

    This is a very relevant and important post. I never thought about Book Cover Ownership to be honest. I have a lots of friends who are authors, some of them self-publishing ones. I bookmarked your post for them. Or maybe one day I will write a book 😉

    Thanks for sharing!
    Have a great day, Ilka

  • Kathryn,
    Great article and full of helpful information. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I have a few clients who are self-published authors who’ll find this super helpful. Will be sharing this with them.

    Sam

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      I appreciate you sharing the post, Sam. Thank you.

  • Aya Walksfar says:

    Kathryn,
    Great article and provides a lot to consider. Thank you for taking time to write such an article. I have a couple of questions that may take a bit, so I will email you on them.
    Aya

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Thanks for the comment, Aya. I look forward to your email.

  • Very informative post, Kathryn. Good to know points, especially since I’m guilty of assuming since I paid for the cover, I own it. As they say, ignorance of the law is no excuse, thanks for the alert.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Mary Ann,

      When armed with the knowledge, you can negotiate for the rights.

      Kathryn

  • Sondra Carr says:

    Thank you for this excellent article. I have a question in reference to Canva. Do the restrictions you listed apply if you upload your own photo or one purchased from a stock company, as opposed to using Canva’s stock images?

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Sondra,

      The Canva restrictions would not apply to your own images. There are likely to be restrictions on the images you “purchased” from a stock house, however. You need to review the license on the site where you obtained the stock image. That is what will control in that situation.

      Kathryn

  • What about original, self-taken photo’s of people. For example, I write epic fantasy, and have taken photo’s of people at events such as Renaissance Fairs. Do I have to get permission and/or a waiver from the person in the photo? What if there is no identifying characteristics in the photo, meaning their face is completely covered with a helmet or mask?

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Alison,

      A model release is generally required if the person in the photo is identifiable. It’s pretty easy to show that you are identifiable if you are the one in the picture. Just because you don’t think the person can be identified doesn’t end the inquiry. For instance, what if the mask hiding the person’s face is unique and the person who created it is wearing it? That’s an identifiable person and a release is required.

      I talk in depth about model release requirements in Model Releases: Who Needs Then and When are They Needed. You may find that helpful.

      Your question raises another point. Check to see that the stock photo license includes a model release.

      Great question. Thanks.

      Kathryn

    • BTW, I apologize for the spelling errors. My question was written pre-coffee 🙂

      • Kathryn Goldman says:

        Spelling errors are excused pre-coffee and post-wine.

  • Thom Reece says:

    As always, a concise, comprehensive, and perfectly targeted article. I have re-posted this to my social media and, of course, to today’s issue of Book Marketing Journal. Thanks for providing great content to your readers.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Thank you, Thom. I appreciate your kind words.

  • Kathryn, thanks for a very relevant and interesting post. As a self-published author, and one who entertains pursuing a traditional publishing deal, I am so glad to have all angles covered in one post like this.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Dianne,

      When that traditional publishing deal walks in the door, have a list ready of all the potential uses you may want to have for your cover. You should also think about negotiating up front for the right to use the cover when the publishing deal ends.

      Kathryn

  • Very interesting article! I have a book being released in English by a publisher. The novel has a version in Portuguese which I intend to release next year in Brazil, but I wouldn’t want it to have any other cover than the current, which I love and is very original. I had already mentioned to the artist that I wanted to discuss her rights for the Portuguese cover in the future.

    • Kathryn Goldman says:

      Nicole,

      I’m glad you found the post useful. Now you have an idea of how to determine who has the rights to the cover you love and how you can best negotiate for its use on the Portuguese edition.

      Kathryn

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