How Do I Protect My Unpublished Cartoons From Being Copied?

Warding off copyright infringement of one's cartoon art before it goes to print.

By , Attorney


I am an aspiring cartoonist, although my work is not yet published. However, now that I have a broad portfolio of work, I plan to submit my cartoons to various websites and magazines. What kind of copyright protection do I need in order to secure my rights to the cartoons?


Many artists are surprised to learn that copyright law protects their creations immediately, as soon as pen is set to paper (or fingers to keyboard), without any need for forms or lawyers. You already have a copyright on your cartoons simply by having fixed them on paper.

If, however, you are concerned about theft of your cartoons, you should file for copyright protection with the U.S. Copyright Office. There are several benefits to federal registration:

  • If you register within five years of publishing your artwork, you are presumed to own the artwork and to have a valid copyright on it.
  • If you need to sue someone for infringement of your artwork, you'll need to show that you have registered the copyright.
  • If your artwork is registered prior to someone's infringement, or within three months of its publication, a successful lawsuit against your infringer may entitle you to special payments, known as "statutory damages," and to reimbursement for what you spend on your attorney's fees.

Registration of a copyright on artwork is pretty simple. You can register your cartoon by submitting application Form VA to the U.S. Copyright Office along with a $45 fee and the appropriate deposit materials (note that fees may change from year to year).

If you've been prolific, you can go ahead and register a whole group of unpublished cartoons for the same basic filing fee. While at the Copyright Office website, you can get more information by downloading Circular 44, Cartoons and Comic Strips, and Circular 40, Copyright Registration for Works of the Visual Arts.

It's also a good practice to place the familiar copyright notice (for example, Copyright © 2018 First/Last Name) on each published copy of your cartoon. This tells anyone who sees the work that the copyright is being claimed, the name of the person claiming it, and when the work was first published. The presence of this mark prevents an infringer from later claiming that the infringement was accidental.

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