Cover Art Copyright & What It Means to Authors



Authors are often times confused by their cover art copyright. Most authors assume once they pay their designer, they (the author) now own the copyright of that design. However, that is not the case. There are several different copyright holders to every cover. Not just the designer’s, or author’s, but also the photographer’s.  In order to keep this a bit simple, I’m only going to be addressing cover art done using photos from stock image sites. Mainly because that is how the majority of self published authors get their covers designed.

In a nutshell sized summary, when you hire a professional designer, you’re not purchasing a “design”. You’re purchasing a license in order to use that design (or image) in a specific way. Unless you purchase the full copyright from the designer, AND exclusive rights from the photographer.  Before we get carried away, let’s start with the basics and work our way up to what the previous sentence actually means.

We’ll start with the usage and license rules from the stock photo site. Since most designs are created using stock photos, it is important to know what the site’s terms are. Almost all sites have very similar terms. It is important you read each site’s terms. While most are similar, they are not identical. You must know how and where you are able to use that particular image. By “purchasing” an image from a stock site, you are not purchasing the sole exclusive use of that image. You also are not able to use that image anyway that  you wish. Every stock site has multiple licenses to choose from. That is what you’re actually purchasing when you pay for an image on a stock site. You’re purchasing the ability to use the image within the photographer’s pre-set terms for that particular license.

The most common purchased license is the standard image license. It allows you to use the image as part of your cover. If you use it in print, then you can only print 200K copies (this number varies by site). Once you reach the number limit, you must purchase another license from the photographer to continue using the images in your cover. You also cannot use the image on any paid promotional items, such as t-shirts, mugs, bookmarks (unless you give them away for free), etc. Anything you sell and/or earn profit on requires what is called an “extended license”.

An extended license is usually much more expensive than a regular standard license because it allows you to do more things with the image. Like putting it on a mug or tshirt. To help make it a bit easier, you can read the license comparison on Depositphotos HERE. I would always suggest you read what you’re allowed to do in each license before you purchase an image.  If you haven’t properly followed the terms which are clearly written out on every stock site, then you can find yourself in a lot of trouble. Either you’ll end up paying much more than you would have, than if you had just followed the terms from the very beginning. Or the photographer could just refuse to allow you to use the images altogether. That would mean a brand new cover re-design.

Now that I’ve addressed the photographer. Let’s go onto the designer’s copyright. If you hire a professional designer to design a cover for you, then 99.9% of the time, they require attribution. Just because you PAID the designer does not mean they have transferred the copyright of the design to you. Just like the stock sites have terms for usage, every designer has terms for how you can use that design. While the photographer holds the copyright for the individual unaltered images, the cover designer holds the copyright of the design as a whole. If you visit a designer’s website and they don’t have terms of service or copyright info page, make sure to ask them up front before you agree or pay them anything. That way you, as the author, know what is required of you.

You can visit my copyright page by clicking HERE. The majority of my terms are based upon the image licenses for the individual images that I may use in the designs. So for example, under the you cannot section in that link, points 1 & 3 are from the stock sites. Those are the photographer’s terms, which I have to abide by, and if you purchase a design from me, then you also must abide by those terms. You will also notice I require attribution in your book on the copyright page. A single sentence “cover art designed by”. Pretty much all designers require this and we do so for the exact same reason you, as the author, have your name on your book. Just like you are the copyright holder of your work, designers are the copyright holders of their work.

It is possible to purchase copyright from the designer. Most designers will sell you complete copyright of the final design, including PSD files, for a specific fee. Most often, that means you don’t have to give them attribution in your book, and depending upon your contract, the designer may or may not retain the right to post the cover in their portfolio. BUT you still must follow the photographer’s terms.  Which means:

If I, the cover designer, sell you my copyright, then you still cannot sell more than 200K copies without purchasing a new license, nor can you put the image on t-shirts, mugs etc. Because those are the photographer’s terms. They are not MY terms. If you want to remove those restrictions, you’d have to contact the photographer and purchase exclusive rights of the image from the photographer.

Purchasing exclusive rights  of an image means the photographer will remove the image from stock sites, making it  no longer available for sale, and you will be able to use the image on whatever you want, as many as you want. But again, every photographer may have a different contract regarding exclusive use. It would be up to you and that photographer to come to an agreement and final cost. But purchasing exclusive rights to an image doesn’t mean that every other person who bought it previous to you will have to remove it. It only means from that day forward the photographer will no longer sell it. Any one who has already purchased the image will still be able to use it under their previously purchased license agreement.

Confused yet? I know it’s a bit complicated. Especially when you’re reading it. The main reason I wanted to type this all out is because it is something that the majority of authors (or the majority I’ve worked with and other designers I know have worked with) seem to be confused about what it means to “purchase” a cover design. That is why I wanted something written out where I could point authors to. Something that broke down exactly what it was you, as the author, are buying when you hire a designer to design your book cover.

If anything is confusing, or you have questions, feel free to send me an email.  I’d be happy to go into further detail if anything is unclear. But please note, every designer, photographer, and stock site has their own specific terms. What I’ve listed above is a generalization. It is not the end all be all for every designer, photographer, or stock site. That is why it is important you read each individual’s terms before you hire them.