The legalities of a book cover are something you don’t find many people talking about, and yet if you are unaware of potential legal issues, you could find yourself in a big mess. I am not a lawyer, and the following does not constitute legal advice – just a friendly heads up of some issues to be aware of. If you have specific questions, seek the advice of a lawyer in your area familiar with the law related to publication.

By default, the artist or designer – the same as an author – holds the copyright for their creations. Unless you have a contract that says otherwise, you do not own the cover of your book, the designer does. Neither of you would own the images within that design unless you created them. In effect, the creator of the image as well as the designer licenses their images to you for use on your book cover. It is generally understood that the image will also be used in promotional materials, so those are covered, but check with your designer to be sure.

Images and Artwork

For stock images, most standard licenses come with a set number of imprints (e.g., copies of your book) that it can be used on. If sales of your book go over that number, then an extended license must be purchased. This is typically a rather large number, so if you exceed it, you can rejoice and be glad that you require the extended license! The precise number varies depending on where the image is purchased, so check the fine print wherever you find your image. The responsibility of appropriate licensing falls with you, the author, so make sure your designer is pulling images from a reliable source.

If your image has people in it, then model releases are also required. Reputable stock image sites will make note if a model release is on file and what, if any, limitations there are. Again, this is your responsibility. If the use of their image is not according to their contract, you can be sued by the model, and they will most likely win. Ignorance of the law does not excuse you.

Also, beware of any images that include copyrighted or trademarked elements. For example, if someone is dressed as Minnie Mouse and someone takes their photo, the photographer and model may give their consent, but Disney most likely has not. The same would be true of brand names, logos, etc. Again, the burden of the law falls on you as the image is on something that you have published. Incidentally, this is true regardless of if what it’s on is for sale or not. The same need to adhere to copyright and trademark laws and licensing is as important on your blog as it is on the cover of your book.


When the designer takes the images, your title, and your author name, and compiles them into the cover image for your book, that compilation is by default under their copyright by law. Unless stated otherwise in your contract, it is not lawful for you to change that image in any way or use the image for anything other than it’s intended purpose. If changes need to be made, you should contact the designer to make them for you.

The reasons for this are very complex and have somewhat to do with the use of stock images. It’s a gray area, so many reputable designers will err on the side of caution and not allow you to have source files, only finished ones. The artistic reason is that a book’s cover design is a very carefully crafted piece of art, and undue tinkering will destroy the balance and effectiveness of the design.


Work-for-hire is an exception to the copyright law that the designer or creator owns the copyright to their creation. This can occur in the context of an employee creating work within the scope of their employment. That probably doesn’t apply to you, the self-published author. The other exception is when a freelance artist and the client both sign an agreement stating that the work is for hire, AND it falls under one of the following nine categories:

  1. A contribution to a collective work
  2. A contribution used as part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work.
  3. A supplementary work, which includes pictorial illustrations, maps, and charts, done to supplement a work by another author.
  4. A compilation
  5. A translation
  6. An atlas
  7. A test
  8. Answer material for a test.
  9. An instructional text (defined as a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities.)

Anything outside of these 9 categories cannot be considered work-for-hire with or without a signed contract. (Information found in the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook Pricing & Ethical Guidelines, 14th Ed. pp. 33-34)