To cover all worst-case scenario legal bases, does a developer need any form of written communication from an artist confirming both the purchase of, and explicit transfer of all rights to, the art assets used in a game?

It may be unlikely, but I wondered if a hypothetical vengeful artist could later decide to accuse a developer of unauthorized use of their art/copyright infringement if the art sale wasn't more explicit and "formal."

Example: A developer commissions an artist online, and receives an email containing game sprites in return for a PayPal payment to the artist. Would the developer have full legal rights to the art at that point, or are they still vulnerable to legal jabs?


A developer commissions an artist online, and receives an email containing game sprites in return for a PayPal payment to the artist.

In that statement, what would imply that the developer has now full rights over the art?

In that statement, what would imply that the artist has still full rights over the art?

It's not said that the artist wants the dev to only use the assets in a specific context, and since there is a transaction, it could be assumed that the artist allows the dev to use them... but it does not say anything about how they could use them.

My point is, if there is no formal agreement, it's easy for things to go wrong.

So to be on the safe side, agree on the license of the art, specifically the ownership of copyrights to the art, before anything else. Agree on what's going to be delivered (.psd, .png?), agree on the price, and agree on the dates, and agree on how the assets can be used (e.g. "I'd like to use it in game X, but also in game Y/you can use it in any of the game that you develop, but you can't resell the assets, unless you sell the whole IP."), again, before any work is done.

And have that written. Don't delete your emails. Store them so you can easily retrieve them. If you can have a written contract, that would be the best.

So yes, ask the artist to sign over all the rights to the art, but do it before they start to work.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good points. I have a friend who might be interested in making some art assets for me, but these kinds of legal aspects have a tendency to make the conversation slightly awkward (and maybe kill some enthusiasm). It can make it seem like you don't trust them, etc. I suppose it's a necessary evil. Thanks for the answer. \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleMesa Feb 18 '17 at 23:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ A wedding contract is not a fun thing to do, but both parties know it's done in order to 1) have a nice relationship and 2) have a smooth separation if something happens. Yes, the contract between you and your friend will kill some enthusiasm, but at least, you'll both know what to expect. If the contract is not interesting for one of the party, the won't sign it, and it's going to stop right there, you'll be able to remain friends, but not talk about this ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Vaillancourt Feb 19 '17 at 0:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ This seems to ignore the most important aspect; consult a lawyer. It is easy enough to write things down, but unless you know law, its not a guarantee. Even a lawyer will tell you it is not a guarantee against legal issues. \$\endgroup\$ – Gnemlock Feb 19 '17 at 4:19

By default, it is always the creator of the work, may it be art or program code, who owns it. By no means do you by default get more than a right to use it, if you purchase it without any further agreements. Additionally, that right may be limited to a particular way of use, if nothing else was stated.

If there is no separate agreement whatsoever, do not expect to get "full rights" to the artwork just because you payed for it, even if it was custom-made solely for you. That is not how it works. Any rights that extend over the (originator-favouring) default rights need to be agreed upon with at least something in writing, as Alexandre wrote in another reply. However, even a short text may change the constellation radically.

Open, honest and clear (in advance is not a bad idea either) communication is the absolutely best way to handle this. Both parties will easily understand each other if both for example are self-employed. After all, us freaks here want to do the work and have the fun.

Edit: Came to my mind, when speaking indies, that one could aim for a parallel right to the work. The word "exclusive" is always tricky. Parallel is good for the artist, who still holds his/her right to for example further develop he work, while you have all the freedom to do the same.


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