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Historic copyright law, relating to commissioned works

If you did not have a written commission agreement clearly stating copyright ownership, then to determine copyright ownership in relation to historic commissions, you need to consider the law historically, as it was at the time of the commission.

The copyright period for a work is not affected if the copyright is owned by the commissioner, rather than the artist or creator.

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1 August 1989 onwards

The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 became law on 1 August 1989. According to the act, copyright stays with the creator unless a written agreement assigns it to another person, with a few exceptions.

The exceptions are:

  • the commissioner may have an implied licence to use the work (at least for the purposes of the commission)
  • where artist or creator creates a work for an employer while employed by them: the copyright belongs to the employer by default

1 June 1957 to 31 July 1989 inclusive

The 1956 Copyright Act became law on 1 June 1957. It states that copyright belongs to the commissioner only when the commission is for:

  • an engraving
  • a photograph
  • a portrait painting or drawing

The Act defines an engraving as any etching, lithograph, woodcut, print or similar.

The Act does not define what a portrait is. It’s generally held to be a picture in which a person is the main subject. Depicting real people does not necessarily make the work a portrait.

Where the artist created a work during the course of employment, the copyright stays with the employer. That’s also true of works created while the artist was employed by the proprietor of a newspaper, magazine or periodical, but only for the purpose of publication in said newspaper, magazine or periodical. For other uses of such works, copyright remains with the artist.

1 July 1912 to 31 May 1957 inclusive

The 1911 Copyright Act became law on 1 July 1912. It’s very similar to the 1956 Copyright Act. For engravings, photographs or portraits ordered and paid for by a third party with money or its equivalent copyright belongs to the person who placed the order — unless there is agreement to the contrary.

Before 1 July 1912

The 1862 Fine Arts Copyright Act became law in 1862. It states that where a painting, drawing or photograph was created for or on behalf of another person for good and valuable consideration the copyright belongs to the commissioner.


The content of this article is not intended to be applied to individual circumstances. It is not legal advice, and is not a substitute for independent legal advice.

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Commission agreement checklist