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Copyright Law and Adult Coloring Books

Coloring books for grownups are a big deal. About 1 million were sold in 2014. About 12 million were sold in 2015. So what do you need to know about copyright law and adult coloring books?

First of all, it’s important to remember that the black and white line drawings in a coloring book are works of visual art and are covered by copyright law. Need a refresher on copyright? No problem…

Click here to listen to my podcast episode on the basics of copyright

Rules for Publishers

The publisher of an adult coloring book must have the right to reproduce those drawings, or else they’re infringing on someone’s copyright. They may have those rights because:

  • The publisher is an individual or group of people who created the drawings themselves.
  • The publisher bought the rights to the drawings, including the copyrights.
  • The publisher licensed those rights from the copyright holder.
  • The publisher’s employee or contractor created the drawings as a “work for hire” under the U.S. Copyright Act (or another country’s similar law.)
  • The drawings are in the public domain, which means that nobody owns them. In the U.S., this would typically apply to works created prior to 1923. (But that’s not always the case; do your due diligence before assuming something is in the public domain.)

The rest of this post will discuss drawings that are not in the public domain, which applies to most drawings found in adult coloring books.

OK, So What About the Book That I Bought?

When you buy an adult coloring book, you have the right to do more or less whatever you want to do with that physical copy of the book under the First Sale Doctrine. So if you want to color in it, go ahead. If you want to sell or give away the book, no problem. You can tear the book apart and hang the pages on your wall.

You can even sell the individual, colored pages, if your coloring skills are strong enough to create a market value for the finished product.

What you can’t do is assume you can make copies of the pages—whether or not you have colored them in. This would be an infringement of the publisher’s copyright.

Are there circumstances where that’s not the case, and your copies would be protected under the Fair Use doctrine? Yes…but if you’ve listened to my Fair Use podcast episode, you’d know that fair use is complicated and it’s not always easy to determine when a use is “fair” or not. In most cases, the final work would have to be “transformative,” meaning, it would have to add new context or place the original work in a new light. Your color choice alone is probably not going to rise to that level.

Note that this rule against making copies applies whether you actually bought the book or simply found the black and white drawing on the internet somewhere. It’s still an infringement, either way.

Derivative Works

OK, let’s get one level deeper. Let’s say the copyright in the original black and white drawing is owned by the publisher. You buy the book, tear out a page, grab your colored pencils, and create your own full-color masterpiece. Who owns the rights to that final, colored version?

The answer is that both parties enjoy part of the copyright in the final version: you and the publisher.

The publisher still owns the original black and white drawing. But they don’t own the unique artistic choices that you made in the coloring process. Those new elements that you added, if they are sufficiently original, will make the full color version a “derivative work” of the publisher’s work.

Now, you might not be able to do anything with this derivative work, as it’s probably inseparable from the original (even if you eliminate the original black and white outlines.) But if your coloring job is so original and creative that you’ve created something of value, you may be able to make and sell copies of the final product if you get a license from the publisher to make copies.

Of course, most people just use these books for fun. If that’s the case, you can color away to your heart’s content. And if you’re good enough to make a business out of this, you’re in good shape as long as you stay away from copyright infringement.

Thanks to my client Mark Evereklian for giving me the idea for this blog post.

EDIT: I’ve gotten a lot of comments on this post. I’m glad to see people engaging with this topic. Just remember, anything I write here, including in the comments section, should not be taken as legal advice. I’m not your lawyer, and engaging in this forum does not create an attorney-client relationship.

In addition, I’m not able to provide legal advice to a non-client. So I’m simply not going to respond to any comments that are seeking advice regarding your specific situation. I’m not ignoring you, and I appreciate the input, but I’ve found it’s just not efficient to keep responding something like “I can’t answer specific legal questions on this blog” over and over again.

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