When it comes to cover art, you have four basic options:

  • Buy a stock cover from a cover designer;
  • Buy a stock image and have a cover designer use it to design a cover;
  • Buy an existing artwork and have a cover designer use it to design a cover; and
  • Commission a cover or artwork specifically for the purpose.

The choices you make could limit what you can do with your cover art. Here are some tips and tricks.

Stock cover from a cover designer[1]


  • What you can do – Use it on your book
  • What you probably can’t do – Use it on your website (unless your cover designer also designed the webpage).
  • What you can’t do – give it to other people to use, including other bloggers to use on your guest posts on their sites, and on merchandise (whether for sale or to give away).

TIP Make sure you get an agreement. Ideally you should own the copyright in the cover design (but not the stock photo) or at the very least have an exclusive, royalty-free licence in perpetuity to use the design, otherwise you might see another book with the exact same cover.

TRAP The cover designer (and not you) holds the licence to use the stock photo. There are circumstances in which the stock website can revoke that licence, which means you would no longer have a right to use your own cover art!

Stock image you purchase[2]


  • What you can do – Use it on your book, your website, merchandise for giveaways, and pretty much anywhere else the royalty-free licence permits.
  • What you probably can’t do – Give it to other bloggers to use on your guest posts on their site as this may involve granting a licence (which you can’t do).
  • What you can’t do – Use it on merchandise for sale (but it’s OK on merchandise to give away).

TIP Make sure you get an agreement. In this case, you really should own the copyright in the design free and clear because you are commissioning a design using an image you have supplied.

TRAP If you don’t own the copyright in the design, and you have to change cover artists mid-series, you may not be able to have another cover designer mimic the style and format of the cover art. 

Artwork you purchase[3]


  • What you can do – Use it on your book, your website, merchandise for giveaways, and pretty much anywhere else.
  • What you probably can’t do – Licence others to use the artwork for their own purposes (i.e. to use in ways unconnected to your book).
  • What you can’t do – represent that you (or anyone other than the artist) created the image. 

TIP Make sure you get an agreement with the artist and the cover designer. Ideally you should own the copyright in the cover design. You may not be able to purchase the copyright in the artwork, but you should at least have a royalty-free licence in perpetuity to use the design. This may be exclusive or non-exclusive depending on what you negotiate. Transferable would be useful so you can licence others to use it.

TRAP Make sure you negotiate a wide enough licence with the artist to allow you to use the image in the ways you anticipate using it.

Commissioned illustrated cover


  • What you can do – Use it basically anywhere you like.
  • What you probably can’t do – nothing really. 
  • What you can’t do – represent that you (or anyone other than the artist) created the image. 

TIP Make sure you get an agreement with the artist. Because you have commissioned this artwork specifically and exclusively for your book, you should own the copyright, free and clear. The artist will retain their moral rights (the right to have the work attributed to them and a few others).  

TRAP The artist may want to retain some rights in the artwork. Generally this should be limited only to the ability to use the artwork as part of the artist’s showcase. You should not allow the artist the right to use the artwork commercially. 


Agreement, agreement, agreement

I cannot stress enough how important it is to have an agreement when it comes to artwork (and other copyright issues). Unlike a physical object, where the fact you have it in your possession may go part way to proving you have some right to it, an image is intangible property. That is, what you own isn’t a physical item, it is the right to use it. 

How you can use it depends on what rights you have, and ranges from owning the copyright (an unfettered ability to use, sell, licence or redistribute the image) to various licences with more limited rights. If you have no agreement, you have no evidence of what rights you have, and the default presumption is that the creator owns the copyright. This means you may well have paid and have nothing to show for it at the end.

If you get this wrong, the worst case scenario is that you could be sued for using someone else’s image. The best case scenario is you may be required to change all your book covers. 



The information in this article is factual information only and is not legal advice, nor is it intended to replace legal advice. You should use this information as a guide only, and should seek individual legal advice from a qualified legal practitioner on your particular circumstances where necessary.
 



[1]Based on the Shutterstock terms and conditions for the standard royalty free licence

[2] Based on the Shutterstock terms and conditions for the standard royalty free licence


[3]This will depend on the terms you negotiate with the artist. For the purposes of this analysis, we have assumed an exclusive, royalty-free, unlimited licence in perpetuity for purposes connected to the book.