That’s a really good question, and one that a lot of authors don’t yet know to ask. Unfortunately, this isn’t the type of thing an author can determine just by looking at the cover.

Sure, you could ask your designer to see proof of licensing for the assets used in the work, and ethical designers can provide you with this and let you know where assets were licensed from. They could show you screenshots of a cover in progress to allay your fears. You could even do reverse image searches on a cover to see if anything concerning comes up.

That said, depending on the designer, a single design may use dozens of minor assets, some which may have been accrued over years from a variety of places, and there is technically no way for you to know if a designer has divulged each asset used in a design. On top of this, it can take quite a bit of time for a designer to collect and provide proof of licensing for each and every asset, and many book covers are not priced at a cost that makes this especially practical.

How do I protect myself then?

Honestly, in the end, you can check as much as you can, but you really do have to place a certain amount of trust in your designer that they are operating their business in an ethical (or at least legal) manner. And the best way to do this is to always choose to work with designers who demonstrate this in their business already.

How?

Choose a designer with a good reputation, both among authors and among other designers. Find one who has invested time and money into their business (e.g. by creating and paying to host a website, following time-consuming legal requirements like having terms and conditions or privacy policies) and who treats their business professionally.

Why?

Because these are the designers that have more to lose if they were to be discovered using unlicensed assets or stealing someone else's artwork. And they're the ones who have already demonstrated at least a certain degree of professionalism in how they've conducted their business so far.

And most importantly of all:

Choose a designer that has a clear contract that protects you. A contract that includes specific important statements about the assets used in the work, and which describes any licensing restrictions, the licensing rights you are purchasing, and the rights that remain with them. (This is why you have to agree to certain terms and conditions when you work with me. It’s for your protection and for mine in the case that you provide assets for me to use in your art).

What kind of statements should a contract include?

You gain as much protection as you can by signing a contract that stipulates the following:

  • The designer uses assets that, to the best of their knowledge and ability, do not infringe upon the rights of any party in the use conditioned by the terms and conditions of the contract (i.e. the assets are legally-sourced for the uses they are purchased for)
  • The author must use the art in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contract or the above is void (i.e. if the author uses the art for a purpose that is not permitted in the contract, the designer is not responsible for their using copyrighted work illegally)
  • Proof of licensing for any assets used in the final design is available to the author upon request (i.e. the designer isn’t afraid to provide the author proof that all assets used in a final design have been licensed correctly for their use in accordance with the contract)

I include all of these statements in my contract. And while I know contracts can be intimidating, and this makes a lot of designers and authors avoid them, I really can’t recommend highly enough purchasing from designers with contracts that protect you.

It’s the least a designer can do to put your mind at ease, and it clarifies expectations for everyone regarding what exactly the author is purchasing.

For example:

  • Are you just purchasing a license to sell e-books? Print and e-book?
  • Can you sell non-book commercial merchandise with the art?
  • Is there a limit to how many physical books can be sold using this art? (This is common for certain stock photos or even fonts if the designer licenses the font from certain locations.)
  • Can the author modify the design to create ads and marketing materials?

These are all questions as an author you need to know the answer to.

A good contract answers these questions clearly. And a good designer can and will happily answer any of these questions for an author who is considering one of their covers.

*Note: I am not a lawyer. Please do not take this as legal advice. I'm just a nice person trying to share some knowledge.

Want to learn more? Sign up to my e-mail list here. In addition to getting early access to new premade covers before anyone else and periodic exclusive discounts, you’ll also get concise, detailed information about what makes a book cover good at its job and how to ensure the book cover you get is one that will put your book into the hands of the right readers.

New authors often think that once they've purchased a book cover, they own the cover and are therefore free to do whatever they need with the cover. While this is a common misconception, I'm afraid this is almost never the case in the cover art world for a number of reasons.

  1. A lot of designers use assets in the cover that they themselves don't own the copyright to (e.g. fonts, stock photos). They cannot sell a copyright they don't own.
  2. It's prohibitively expensive for authors to buy the copyright for a piece of cover art even in cases where the designer does own the copyright for everything and is willing to sell it.

And that's why instead of purchasing the copyright to the art when you buy a cover or a piece of art, you're often purchasing a license to use the art in particular ways.

Which ways? Well, that depends on the designer.

For example, if you purchase a premade e-book cover from me, you're purchasing a license to sell an unlimited number of e-books and to use the e-book cover to promote that book. If you want to use that cover to sell non-book commercial merchandise (e.g. t-shirts or mugs with the cover art on it), you have to purchase an additional license (the commercial merchandise license add-on) to be able to do that.

Note that even when you purchase licenses from me, I still retain certain rights (e.g. the right to show the cover to promote my business, the right to tell others I created the cover) and the copyright for the design overall. The licenses you purchase and the rights I retain are all clearly described in the terms and conditions you agree to when you purchase from the Shop or have custom work done by me.

Ok, that's great, but how do I know what rights I have if I don't purchase from you?

Simple. If you purchase from another designer, you'd read their contract to determine what rights they give you.

As much as I hate legalese and completely understand the frustration and boredom just the word 'contract' triggers, I always push authors to read the contract. This is a business after all. In the end, each designer is different, and the legal agreement between the two of you is all that will matter for your specific situation.

I also recommend that you read this summary here. It's by far the most concise and detailed summary of book copyright and licensing I've come across. It corrects the common misconception on the internet that book covers are automatically work for hire. (They're not.) And it's quick to read and easy to understand. Do yourself a favor, save yourself a lot of potential future regrets, and take the 5 minutes to read it. You'll be far more comfortable navigating the business part of book covers if you do.

What are the common licensing terms you see as a designer?

This varies from designer to designer, but in case it helps you gain a frame of reference for what I've found to be common among the many indie designers I know, this is what I see most frequently, especially with book covers created through photomanipulation (a common technique used to make a lot of book covers):

  • When you buy an e-book cover, you're purchasing a license to use that cover to sell e-books and for promotion. The copyright for the design stays with the designer.
  • When you buy a print cover add-on, you can use that print cover to sell up to (usually) 250k or 500k physical copies of books. Why those numbers? Because those are the limits imposed on photomanipulators using common stock photo sites for design assets (Read more about these limitations).
  • You usually can't modify the art/cover in any way, or sell commercial merchandise with it.

Now, that's just a very common default. For some designers, that's the end of it. They will not sell you the right to sell commercial merchandise with the cover art and they will not sell you the right to modify the art in any way. (Or if they will, it will cost a lot.)

For other designers, it's the starting point. You can purchase an additional commercial merchandise license that will allow you to sell mugs, t-shirts, etc. with the cover art (assuming you purchase the extended licenses for any stock photos used), or you can buy the equivalent of a modification license that lets you make adjustments to the cover art yourself for specific reasons or if you follow certain directions. Some designers let you purchase one, but not the other. Some require attribution on the copyright page. Others merely request it. A lot of these details really are designer specific. But this at least gives you an idea of what is a common default.

Be smart. Protect yourself.

If you're ever unsure what licenses you're purchasing, ask the designer specifically for written clarification and please, please, please READ the contract. If the contract doesn't include information about what you can and can't do with the cover by the time you have to sign it (or tick a checkbox on a website saying that you have read and agree to abide by the terms - very common for premade cover purchases), don't purchase from that designer.

To protect yourself and to avoid accidentally breaking the law, you need to know (in writing in the contract) exactly which license(s) you have purchased and what you're legally allowed to do with the art. Great cover art is a must to sell your books today, and great art at a great price is even better. But remember, this is one of the biggest purchases you'll make for your book's marketing. The only way to avoid regrets is to know what you can do with it before you purchase.

Want to learn more? Sign up to my e-mail list here. In addition to getting early access to new premade covers before anyone else and periodic exclusive discounts, you’ll also get concise, detailed information about what makes a book cover good at its job and how to ensure the book cover you get is one that will put your book into the hands of the right readers.