The moment someone creates anything "artful", the only person legally allowed to makes copies of that artwork is the original creating artist. If the artist decides to make copies (e.g. prints, multiple sculptures, etc.), he or she can. If anyone else does, without written permission from the creating artist, this is a copyright infringement. The artist has the legal right to take the offending party to court and sue for damages. In fact, copyright laws are so strong that family or legal heirs will still own the copyright to the artist's artwork until 70 years after his or her death.
Artists that display their work online or allow their art to be published in books or magazines often put a copyright symbol (letter c encased in a circle) next to the image. Just because the symbol isn't there doesn't mean you can copy the work; copyright is automatically implied when the art is created. The symbol is there as a reminder.
Art collectors should be aware that even after buying an original work of art, the artist still holds the copyright. This is what allows the artist to sell prints of the work. The buyer cannot make prints or sell copies of the art unless the artist has given express permission in writing. If you as the collector want to buy a piece of art, without giving the artist the right to make reproductions, please make this clear up front. If this is an artist that makes prints of their work, it is likely the artist will want to do so for that original piece. If you as the buyer want to also own the copyright, I would also suggest getting this fact in writing since the laws are written in the artist's favor.
There are three areas where I see art collectors fall into problems when it comes to copyrights and art work.
- You cannot use an artist's image for anything without their explicit consent. This includes using an image of the artwork to represent your business or organization. This is still the case even if you have purchased a copy of the artwork.
- You cannot download a copy of the artwork to use as a screen saver, t-shirt logo, avatar on your Facebook page, or other assorted activities without written consent from the artist. Even though you are using it for your own behalf, with no plans to resell, it is still considered "stealing" unless the artist has consented.
- This next area is a bit more fuzzy, but you cannot post a copy of the artwork on your own website, blog, facebook page, etc. without consent of the artist. Generally, if the artwork is identified with the creating artist, copyright symbol, and even a title and date created, problems can be averted. But without that identification, problems usually arise. Many artists like to have the publicity, so an email is usually all it takes to avoid problems. Nowadays with social media sharing buttons, I would suggest using one of them to "share" the artwork with others.
In general, the few copyright problems we have had to deal with have not been malicious in any way. People were just unaware of the laws and were happy to comply with our request once we asked not to use it in the manner they were.
My advice: when in doubt, ask. If you've made a mistake, rectify it. If you're caught, be honest.