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The age-old addendum is that people should receive their flowers while they are alive. However, quite often in the art world, we find that artists receive more accolades after their death. Once an obituary drums up interest in the media, artworks suddenly double in value. What was once perhaps considered a hotel room decoration piece has now scored a seasonal exhibition spot at MoMA. The question then becomes, who owns all the incoming money associated with the ongoing profitability of an artist’s works? This article will explore the transfer of copyright ownership regarding artistic works after the original artist’s death. 

Copyright Duration In Australia

In Australia, copyright duration periods vary from material and circumstances. However, a key factor is that the work enters the ‘public domain’ once copyright expires. This means that individuals in public can use the work without infringing copyright

Factors that are involved when determining copyright duration include: 

  • whether the artist made the work before or after 1 January 2019;
  • the type of copyright material involved;
  • when the material was first made public;
  • whether the identity of the author is generally known.

These factors are important to consider as they directly affect whether copyright duration in a work will be:

  • the life of the author plus 70 years;
  • 70 years after the work was first made public; or
  • 70 years after the artist first made the work.

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The Perks of Fame

When the author’s identity is generally well known, the copyright over the artwork exists from when the work was created and lasts for 70 years following the artist’s death. 

Unfortunately, this does not apply in circumstances where the author was anonymously producing the works of art. When the artist’s identity is unknown, and the copyright material was not made public, the copyright lasts 70 years from the material’s creation. However, if the artwork is made public within 50 years of creation, the copyright duration lasts for 70 years after it is made public.

Inheriting Copyright After An Artist’s Death

Under inheritance laws, an artist’s copyright can form part of their estate following their death and transfer to a nominee. The duration of this ownership is 70 years after the artist’s death. The inheritor will control how the use of the artworks and any licensing arrangements and associated royalties. A large part of apportioning these rights is through wills.

The Pablo Picasso Copyright Fight

There are some great examples of how copyright claims and claims to artistic works can go wrong after an artist’s death. For example, the valuation of Picasso’s artworks is so large that it has been the cause of long court battles and family feuds. 

When Pablo Picasso died in 1973, his legacy totalled an eye-watering number of 45,000 artistic works. Appraisals valued the estate in total to be a few hundred million. Still, numerous experts have since claimed that the true value was underestimated at the time of valuation and is worth billions. Picasso did not leave a will or any apparent heirs to his artworks when he died. The division of the art and assets took many years, involving legal and judicial interference, which ended up severing the relationships between his children. 

Pablo Picasso’s son, Claude Picasso, was eventually named legal administrator of the estate in 1996 and created the Picasso Administration that, to this day, manages the heir’s jointly owned interests. It also controls the rights to any artistic reproductions or licensing for works. 

However, due to the nefarious black market in the art world, many of Picasso’s artworks have been stolen or duplicated. The Picasso Administration has not been able to reign in the full commodification of the Picasso name as it has morphed into a brand. 

Key Takeaways

Ownership of copyright after an artist’s death will depend on several factors. For example, if the artist included the copyright ownership of artwork in a will, this will help determine who owns it. It is also important to understand how long copyright lasts after an authors death. This is because in Australia, once copyright expires, the work becomes ‘public domain’. If you anticipate you will be as famous as Picasso one day, you should make sure that you understand your intellectual property rights. Contact LegalVision’s intellectual property lawyers today on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does copyright last after an artist’s death?

This will depend on several factors, including whether the artist was anonymous or well known.

What happens when copyright expires on an artwork?

The artwork will enter the public domain. This means that members of the public can use it without infringing on the copyright.


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