What is art law?

In this introductory article I explain the various aspects of art law. Through ‘Art Law Now’, I will be interviewing lawyers and artists, and will share their legal experiences in the industry. Art Law Now seeks to act as awareness building free legal resource. 

Art law is a multidisciplinary field of law that combines various legal practice areas from corporate law to intellectual property law, related to art and antiquities. For this reason it is difficult to box the phrase ‘art law’ into any one field of law. 

The sale of art and antiquities, and contracts governing these sales as well as exhibitions fall into transactional law, put simply because it concerns the executions of sales, which are transactions. 

Corporate law i.e., the law of people’s relations with and the operations of companies also finds a place in art law, specifically when art and antiquities are displayed by large organisations who are registered as companies, this includes galleries. Often, however museums  and galleries are registered as not for profit organisations. These organisations may be registered as companies or trusts or charities. How an organisation is registered often defines the rights and liabilities it has towards those whom it interacts with, including artists and patrons. 

As artists, or even owners of art work and antiquities insurance is a topic that often comes up and can be daunting. There are various options, for instance a piece does not need to always be insured, there is an option to insure a work only when it is being displayed by a third party. This applies both to both commercial and non-commercial exhibitions. Furthermore, insurance may be applied when shipping a work from one place to another. As a collector, one may want a high value work to be insured against damage and theft at all times. Insurance in any form, essentially limits the risk or the financial contribution that one must bare in the event that  a work is damaged, lost or stolen. 

Finally, an area of art law that is most talked about is intellectual property. Of the three main categories of intellectual property (patents, trademarks and copyrights), copyrights are most relevant to art. When an artist creates a work he/she has a copyright in that work. In India the Copyright Act of 1957, which was prompted by the International Berne Convention, provides copyright protection to its holder in India, as well as in any of the other countries were members to the Convention. Copyrights afford economic rights, for instance the right to be paid royalties. The Act also affords ‘moral rights’ under section 57. In India only two moral rights are recognised, the right to paternity (for the artist to claim that he/she made the work) and right to integrity (for the work to not be modified by a third party). In India the term of a copyright is the entire lifetime of the artist and then 60 years from the year of his/her death. The economic right may be licensed or given outright to a third party, this includes works created by commission (depending on the terms of the commission agreement) or in the course of employment. However, moral rights can never be passed on to someone other than the artist.

Art law is a complex area of law that often lacks comprehension. A basic understanding of this area enables the various stakeholders within the industry to not only better understand their own rights, but also gauge how they should be interacting with others. 

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