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Disputes over copyright ownership

A copyright ownership dispute is when 2 or more different parties (individuals or organisations) cannot agree on who owns copyright or on how it should be divided. Read on for help with navigating these disagreements.

Disputes between multiple creators

If you create a work with one or more other person, and your contributions are not distinguishable, you are all its ‘authors’, and automatically become joint first copyright owners.

If individual input is distinguishable

If individual input is distinguishable, you each own your own copyright for your contribution. Copyright ownership will be based on what each of you did towards the work’s creation. For example, the shape of a sculpture as opposed to decorative elements painted on it – both may benefit from copyright protection separately and be owned separately.

Another scenario: if someone takes a photograph of a sculpture, the copyright in the photo belongs to the photographer, and the copyright for the sculpture remains with the sculptor.

Recording performances

If you are a performance artist and you ask someone to record one of your performances by taking photos or video footage of it, then it is possible that you will not own copyright in the recorded material unless you have a written agreement with the person recording the performance that says so.

Getting advice

Joint copyright is complex and depends on each circumstance. Getting legal advice is your best course of action. Our Copyright Advice Service page includes links to free guidance and recommended legal advice providers. DACS Licensing and DACS ARR members can also contact the service for free expert advice.

Commission and employment copyright disputes

If a work of art is commissioned, or you create it for an employer, who owns the copyright will depend on the default position in the law or any variation to this through the contract terms.


With commissions, under the current law, copyright in the commissioned work stays with the creator — but the commission agreement may indicate that it is owned by the person or people who commissioned the work. Check your commission agreement carefully before agreeing to it.


Copyright law states that copyright in works created by an employee in the course of employment belongs to the employer unless a contract states otherwise. Check your contract carefully before agreeing to it.

Read more about commission agreements, employment and copyright

Beneficiaries and heirs copyright disputes

If an artist dies without leaving a Will specifying who they leave their copyright to, this can create the conditions for a dispute.

Whoever inherits your rights will also be able to benefit financially from royalties generated by them. Without a Will, your rights will be passed on according to UK intestacy rules, which may not reflect your wishes.

We recommend artists make a Will, with the help of a legal professional, so that they can protect their work by leaving the copyright to someone who will make sure your work is treated and remembered in the way you want it to be.

You can leave your copyright to whomever you choose. You can give copyright in different artistic works to different beneficiaries — including galleries, museums and charities.

Copyright is separate from the physical property of your artistic work. If you leave your physical work to a person or institution, they will not automatically inherit your copyright unless it is also specifically given to them. You can leave the physical work to one person and give the copyright to another.

You should also provide clear guidance and instructions for your beneficiaries and heirs about how you would like your legacy to be managed.

Read information about Estates and estate planning

Exclusive licence agreement copyright disputes

If you’ve agreed to a licence agreement which gives exclusive usage rights in a work to someone else, that means you, the creator, cannot use the work, or allow anyone else to use it, in the way described in the agreement.

For example, if you granted a company an exclusive licence to produce and sell greeting cards featuring one of your artworks, then you could not allow anyone else, including yourself, to use the same work in the same way i.e. to make and sell greeting cards.

Steps to navigate a copyright ownership dispute

  1. Check the terms of your contract or agreement.
  2. Gather evidence and documentation.
  3. Keep records of correspondence and communication.
  4. Seek legal advice.

To resolve the dispute, you may be recommended to go on to mediation, or to take legal action. If you take the case to court, be aware that the process could be lengthy and costly, plus you may not get the outcome you would like.

Copyright Advice Service

Free expert advice on copyright issues for DACS Licensing and DACS ARR members.

Find out more about DACS Copyright Advice Service


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.