Public art adorns our parks, streets and shopping centres, and is enjoyed by thousands of people every day.

Artists creating sculptures or works of artistic craftsmanship on permanent public display will find there are special rules relating to their reproduction and distribution.

This factsheet covers the following:

Forms of public art subject to special rules

Artists who create sculptures or works of artistic craftsmanship on permanent public display or in premises which are open to the public will find that their work may be reproduced without their permission in certain formats without infringing their copyright.

This exception is outlined in the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. It is important to stress that this exception does not extend to all forms of public art. Art forms such as original paintings (eg murals), drawings, engravings or photographs which are exhibited in public places or in premises open to the public are not included in this provision.

The type of reproductions included in this exception

The Act specifies that copyright in works subject to this exception is not infringed by:
  • making a graphic work representing it (eg a drawing or painting);
  • making a photograph or film of it;
  • broadcasting or including a visual image of it in a cable programme service (eg any appearance of the work in a television programme).
Provided that the above reproductions have been made in the following permitted circumstances, there will be no infringement of copyright if copies are then issued to the public, broadcast or included in any cable programme service.

Circumstances in which this exception applies

The sculpture or work of artistic craftsmanship must be permanently situated in a public place or in premises open to the public.

Permanence excludes temporary displays or any relevant work which may be removed from time to time. A public place would probably cover streets, parks and similar locations. However, a public place could still be private land, such as a shopping centre. 

"Open to the public" is presumably intended to cover premises that the public do not have an automatic right of access to, but are admitted to by the person or body controlling those premises. 

It is not clear that any degree of permanence is required where works are displayed in premises which are "open to the public". Experts are divided on the point. 

How it applies internationally

This is a UK specific provision and does not apply to all countries. This means that it may still be possible to restrain the distribution of copies of works subject to this exception in the UK if they are distributed outside the UK.

Where such works are being distributed outside the UK, artists should seek specific legal advice on whether or not distribution can be restrained.

How uses subject to this exception can be prevented

If a place is not public and admission is restricted, visitors might be required to refrain from copying the works. For example, a condition of entry to a gallery might be that people must refrain from photographing the works displayed.

The owner of the premises may be able to enforce this restriction on contractual grounds as opposed to relying on copyright law.

Disclaimer: This factsheet is offered as a general guide to the issues surrounding copyright in this area. It does not represent an exhaustive account. It is not intended to offer legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. We strongly recommend you seek specialist advice for any specific circumstances.