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The Basics of Art Law: workshop with Art School Africa, the DML Law and Stellenbosch art Law Clinic


Much like Dorothy following the yellow paved road, you find a yellow door brightly greeting as you approach the white and grey stoop of the old cape building. Going through it leads you down to the wonderful world of Oz or in this case a glance into the world of law that surrounds the contemporary art world in South Africa. 

The clink of glass and the babble of voices warm the room. The original old wooden floor creaks as creatives mingle - excited for the night’s talk. 

The speakers are the DML Law and the Stellenbosch art law clinic and the workshop will explore the basics of art law and the legal side of the art world. 

Julia (@artworldafrica) opens the evening with the core reason for the workshop - these are fundemental elements crucial for any creative. It is by learning that you empower yourself and that then protects your creative practise. By understanding more about the law, and how to handle your rights you invest in your future. 

Art school Africa is working together with Oxford is hosting talks like these for art practitioners for all around the African continent to access through their online portal empowering creatives. 

The DML Law are a law firm based in Claremont (@dmI_socialmedialaw). The different speakers from DML Law unpacked different topics including the basics of contract law, labour law, and copyright law.

In the workshop we were proposed to see lawyers as professional problem savers and that contracts are the building blocks that protect an artist’s relationships, creative practise and artworks.  

A contract is a nucleus of an agreement that looks at the big and small picture. The aim is for certainty. It makes deadlines clear, confirms how conduct will be handled and the time for performance. 

You record these things because if not clarified it can become difficult. Almost like playing ‘broken telephone’. So instead you record the intention. This also empowers you that if the contract is broken that there are clear consequences. 

One key question was how to handle if a breach is made and the contract not completed because the company/client doesn’t pay for the art/services provided. The feedback was to ask for a deposit and clear a timeline for both payments in your initial contract. 

Labour law was the next topic and it was discussed how the different parts of legislation including a breakdown on the employment act work. 

They key important lesson was you need to determine your rights in the beginning and establish the relationship when you, as a creative, work with someone else. 

It’s very different to have an independent contractor relationship than to have an employee/employer relationship. They have different rights.

Labour law is there to protect employees and South Africa is one of the places with the most employee centric labour law in the world. 

Different elements like dismissals, formal disciplinary hearings, and the consequences for employers if wrongly handled were discussed. 

A breakdown of how the CCMA and rentrenchment works in South Africa was also outlined. An important note is if you want to raise a query after being let go it’s important to know you have from date of dismissal to 30 days to claim. 

The next topic was Copyright law. The focus was on the basics in South Africa. If you create an artwork, literary piece or muscial composition you automatically have copyright. You don’t need register it.

There are four types of copyright:

Inventions - patents 

Trademarks - like a logo or brand or slogan 

Trade secrets (confidential information)

Literary work / Artworks 

To qualify for copyright you need to meet two points:

  •  it needs to be original (combining effort, skill and time) 

  •  it needs to have some kind of material form. You can not claim copyright on just an idea. 

It gets trickier in the field of arts as there are many gray areas of what’s interpretable. The talk looked at fair dealing where your content could be used as research, a quotation, for personal use, and/or for criticism.  

An interesting note was with a commission artwork - the client is automatically given copyright but can be contracted out if the artist wants to retain it. But it must be in the contract. 

Key points like what happens when selling an object, how to protect your copyright, how copyright transfers work and what royalties are were discussed.

One way suggested to protect your copyright is to keep record of evidence of the creation of your work.

The segment of the workshop closed on the note that a  new bill is being introduced in South Africa which will update and change elements of copyright law so the landscape will change soon. 

The second half of the workshop was led by the Stellenbosch Art Law Clinic (@stellenboschartlaw) who are building a safe space for artists to bring legal queries and more. The legal knowledge they share can help artists to navigate the art industry and empower both artists and the law students who contribute in the space.

Al-generated art and how non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are created was dicussed and how the legal implications of these models are actively being developed as the technology grows, changes and develops overnight. 

Interesting case studies and examples were shown outlining how the world is actively navigating these new technologies and in places applying older law models and structures to inform the current situation. 

The evening ended as it began with the babble of excited voices as creatives and speakers mingled. And when you leave, the slight chill of the Cape Town evening wind greets you waking you up. It truly feels like you are transported in these talks and workshops as the sense of community, wealth of knowledge and useful skills are shared like treasure or like red ruby shoes that will empower your journey forward. 

The workshop will be uploaded on the Art School Africa website soon at


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