Protecting Style in the Visual Arts

If you’re a painter, illustrator, designer or visual artist, you probably have a certain artistic style (inspired or original) that’s apparent in your work – ever wondered if you ought to protect it?

Why should I need to protect my style?

Artistic style can be an important identifier. If you’re an artist known for his or her work that’s characterised by a unique sense of visual style then that element of style becomes crucial to your career, business and reputation as a visual artist. Why? Simple really – people who are interested and appreciate your work are capable of recognizing your artistic style and will in all probability look for other pieces of artwork carrying the same inherent style.  In other words – your style is now your identifier, your signature if you will.

But the law protects my work, why bother about style?

Let’s think of a situation where your art series becomes hugely popular owing to the specific artwork and your unique style. Each work of art is protected under law, and cannot be copied so long as you have not sold, assigned or licensed your rights over it. Things are going great for you, until a few months later you find out about this other artist who’s been producing illustrations that are not reproductions of your art series but seem stylistically similar to your work. Things start to get messy when you meet people who think they’ve bought or seen your artwork, when in fact its artwork produced by the other artist!

So as you can see – protecting a singular piece of creative expression is important, but it’s also important to keep a check on your artistic style, especially if it’s possible to connect an artist’s style with an artist’s work.

Right, so I can copyright my artistic style?

Nope, you cannot. When it comes to protecting artistic style, copyright law is definitely not going to help you because copyright law doesn’t protect style, perspective, lighting, or anything that sortof resembles an idea (because copyright law does not protect ideas, but only protects expression – you can read more about that here). Copyright law will only be able to protect a specific work of art.

So how do I protect my style?

It’s possible to protect your style by counting on Trademark law to step in and justify some kind of exclusive ownership of your style by really pushing the argument that your artistic style acts as an identifier. Trademark law doesn’t concern itself with copying so much so it’s focussed on preventing consumer confusion. (You can read about Trademark law here). In other words, the fact that your style will lead people to works created by you, and that someone else using a similar style might confuse people who are meaning to see or purchase your work, is probably good enough to invoke some kind of trademark protection.

In order to use Trademark law to protect your artistic style, it’s best to mark your piece of work in some way so that people viewing your work can judge the authenticity of its authorship – the most common way to do this, is to sign off on the artwork.

So I signed my work – does that mean my style has been trademarked?

Although your signature on your work of art might assure others of its authenticity (we are not going to consider people who forge signatures and make counterfeit art work in this explanation), a signature by itself may not have much legal significance as a Trademark. In order to be a Trademark, the mark itself needs to be as fanciful and non-generic as possible. In the case of signatures, which are usually surnames this can be a problem especially if you have a relatively common surname. One quick solution then is to sign your whole name and hope that this along with the style of writing the signature will be eligible for trademark protection. If your name has acquired some kind of secondary meaning – your name even though common, has come to be commonly associated with a particular style of work, then too its possible to use a signature as a trademark. Another option is to create some kind of logo that can be associated with you as an artist, and can accompany every one of your works. Needless to say, both signature and logo will really become fully effective if they are registered as trademarks.

Picasso's Signature [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Picasso’s Signature [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
What if I specialize in reproducing other’s styles?

A lot of artists are famous for being able to produce work that is stylistically similar to the work of artists in the past. In situations like that, one way of ensuring that the reproducer’s work is not confused with the original artist’s work is by signing off with the following format – “After [artist’s name]” followed by the reproducer’s signature also. This way there is almost no room for confusion. Artists like Jaweed Hussain who specializes in reproducing the style of famous Master Abdur Rahman Chughtai, is one of many artists who has decided to follow this format of signing off on his artwork after he found himself staring at works that he recognized as being his own, but were on display as having been made by the famous Master himself.

So as a visual artist what do I do to protect my artistic style?

Make sure that you mark your artwork in some way – if you’re interested in going all the way, then do go ahead and get your signature or logo registered as a trademark and then make sure that it accompanies every artwork your produce. As an artist, you also have a Moral Right to claim authorship over a work and to prevent others from wrongly attributing their work to you.

I hope this post has helped in clarifying the significance and the possible way in which you as a visual artist, can protect your artistic style however if you have a specific query or if there’s something you’d like to discuss then do leave a comment, or send me an email.


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