Art is subjective, but the law isn't: five essential legal principles for graphic designers

Safety and insurance

14 March 2016

Graphic design is all about coming up with fresh, inspiring and beautifully executed ideas. But while being a creative powerhouse comes with the territory, it's just as important that designers know all about the legislation surrounding their business.

To help you stay on the right side of the law, here's a quick refresher on the five key legal principles graphic designers need to keep in mind when tackling a brief.

1. Image copyright

In the eyes of the law and the Intellectual Property Office (PDF), "photographs, illustrations and other images will generally be protected by copyright as artistic works."

In other words, if you find an image on the internet, in print or anywhere else, even with no supporting information about its copyright status, you’re required to assume it has copyright and ask for permission before you use it – either as a single image or as part of a larger work.

Usually, the copyright belongs to the person who creates the image, unless it was created for an employer, in which case the employer owns it. However, if a design includes images of another person, you may need their written permission before using it in a promotional campaign.

Generally, copyright on images lasts for the life of the creator plus 70 years. During that time, the owner may ‘license’ an image (let someone use it) or ‘assign’ it (sell or give away the copyright).

2. Font licensing

These are a whole different ball game, so let’s start with the basics: while you're licensed to use preloaded fonts in programs like Photoshop, this isn't the same as owning them. Most licenses allow designers to use the fonts to create designs and documents on their computer, but not necessarily to ‘embed’ them or, in other words, share the font with unlicensed users.

Here are the four permission levels you’re likely to encounter, and what they mean in practice:

  1. ‘No embedding’ – you can’t embed these fonts in a digital document.
  2. ‘Preview and print’ – you can embed the fonts in a digital document (for example a PDF), but only to be viewed on a screen or printout.
  3. ‘Editable’ – you can embed fonts in a digital document, and it's fine for the recipient to view, print or edit the text.
  4. ‘Installable’ – the recipient can install the font to create completely new documents.

In web design, there are a few common approaches to sharing and rendering fonts:

  1. ‘Web-safe’ fonts are a small selection of fonts commonly found across both Apple and Windows computers, typically used by designers to ensure that text renders as well as possible in various web browsers. The operating system licence governs these fonts.
  2. ‘Rasterised’ fonts are turned into images and therefore not embedded.
  3. ‘CSS @font-face’ instructs the browser to temporarily download the font onto a user’s computer, and these fonts have their own licence terms.
  4. Adobe Typekit gives subscribers access to a catalogue of fonts and has its own terms of use.

3. Creative Commons

Creative Commons (CC) licences automatically give people the right to use, modify or share content. There are various degrees of permissions:

  • CC0 is public domain, meaning the content is anyone’s to use, modify and share – no strings attached.
  • CC BY (CC Attribution) is anyone’s to share, use and modify, if you credit the original creator.
  • CC BY-SA (CC Attribution-ShareAlike) is as above, but requires you to share any modifications under the same licence.
  • CC BY-ND (CC Attribution-NoDerivatives) allows credited use and sharing, but not modification.
  • CC BY-NC (CC Attribution-NonCommercial) allows credited use, sharing and modification – but not for profit.
  • CC BY-NC-SA (CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike) is as above, but you must share any modifications under the same licence.
  • CC BY-NC-ND (CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) allows credited sharing and usage, but not modification or sale.

If you want to register any of your work under Creative Commons, or find out more about doing so, visit

4. ‘Fair use’

Under US and UK law, the ‘fair use’ principle exists to prevent copyright law from hindering free speech, freedom of the press, and to avoid excessive legal action for accidental or minor breaches of copyright. It allows content creators (including designers) to include quotes and excerpts from published works if they credit the author and source, and justify the extent of its use.

Fair use is usually applied to news reporting, incidental references and private or educational use. Outside of these cases, it’s wise to seek the owner’s permission.

5. Client obligations

Graphic designers (and indeed all other small businesses) are legally required to provide their clients with adequate services. Where work falls below the standards expected, a client may choose to bring a claim against the supplier – especially where the client has suffered financial loss.

Disputes between graphic design businesses and clients often arise from unintentional copyright violations. When a designer fails to obtain the correct licence, they're responsible for the mistake – and given the intricate nature of image and font permissions, it's hardly surprising that mistakes do happen.

*10% of professional customers paid this or less for business insurance between August 2015 and January 2016