The Hazards of Drawing Realtors

October 19th, 2007 | Posted in General

I’m driving along a busy road one summer not too long ago on my way to somewhere in the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities, and roll up to a stop light. As I’m waiting, I look around and see a bus stop bench on the right hand side of the street. On it’s back is one of those advertisement signs they always have on those benches. This billboard was of two realtors advertising their services. I did a double take at this one… very prominently on it was a caricature of two people, presumably the realtors of whom the advertisement was the subject. I also clearly recognized it as the work of my good friend and illustrator Jim Hungaski, who was drawing for me that summer at nearby Valleyfair. I called Jim and he told me he did that caricature knowing it was going to be used for an advertisement and charged appropriately. No harm, no foul…. that time.

This is one of the hazards of working as a live caricaturist in either a theme park or a retail center. What we are supposed to be doing is live drawings for entertainment and as souvenirs, meant to be hung up on a wall or in your closet or wherever. 99% of time that’s what happens. However there is a small percentage of customers who have different ideas… and they are usually realtors. That is not a joke. Why? Well, realtors are an odd lot. They make a living selling homes, but what they market in all their ads and business propaganda is THEMSELVES. You never see an ad for a realtor without a large, toothy headshot of them grinning like a loon at you. Their persona and image is what they have to sell to you on first, then they can sell you a house. Regardless, I can tell you that almost all the problems I’ve ever had with the illegal use of a live caricature image has involved a realtor. Some of them see a caricature booth as a (very) cheap place to get artwork for business or marketing purposes. They’ll use their caricature on business cards, letterhead, for logos and, yes, even billboard ads. That is of course a no no. As I’ve said here many times, the ownership of a piece of original art does not include the ownership of the copyrights to that art. That resides with the artist unless they specifically transfer it in writing.

Why get hung up on such a small thing? What difference does it make to me that this drawing is on some business cards and not just on their wall? The difference is that it is ultimately costing some other illustrator a job doing that art in a legitimate manner, and the value of something like that is worth a lot more than the $15.00 that person paid to the theme park artist. Freelance illustration is a tough enough way to make a living without potential jobs being given away for practically nothing. It’s protecting the value of what an illustrator does to try and prevent or limit this kind of thing from happening. Granted, a lot of these “potential clients” are not that at all, as they are only going the caricature route because they see it as cheap through the caricature artist at the local theme park or fair, but as I always say it’s the education of the masses that’s important.

Not that I think these people are evil or anything. Many of them have no clue about copyrights and how it works, and probably think they are doing nothing wrong and are just being clever. They usually tell you unabashedly upfront what they will be doing with the drawing. Just a few weeks ago I got an e-mail from a lady who sent a scan of a drawing she had done by one of my artists at Six Flags St. Louis. She wanted me to help her get in touch with the artist as she wanted to get another drawing done to update her website and advertising with a different “theme”. This drawing was she and her husband as “Super-Realtors” (there’s an original idea), and now she wanted them to be pirates. I was going to point out that pirates are actually thieves, liars and murderers… not the best image for a realtor. A lawyer, maybe… Instead I informed her that using the art for a purpose other than hanging it on the wall was copyright infringement and she should really contact that artist and pay them additional fees for the commercial use of the image. She got all huffy about it of course. How dare I expect her to pay a legitimate fee for the legal copyright when she had successfully rooked some unsuspecting theme park artist that did not know any better? Ultimately that is my fault, as I need to do a better job of educating my artists about this kind of thing. I also don’t completely buy the “I didn’t know it was wrong” excuse… these folks have paid professional photographers money to take their studio headshots, and they know that it costs more to do something meant for commercial use. I would be willing to bet they know that they can’t get their headshot taken cheaply at Sears and use it in an ad.

Not all realtors are like that, of course. I’m sure the vast majority are law abiding citizens who would never dream of taking advantage of a live caricaturist like that. It is just a fact that realtors seem to be the biggest offenders in that regard, so I have a little fun at their expense. Their profession will get back at me when they collect their commission after I sell my house.

In the meantime whenever I am asked to draw a special theme like having my subject as a giant leaning on house with a “sold” sign on it, I can do one of two things. I can educate them about copyright and the legal use of the drawing. That’s the boring way. Usually I draw them in a 70’s era leisure suit, the house as a dilapidated and fly ridden outhouse and the weather beaten sold sign swinging from one end. Sometimes I’ll throw a “trust me” button on their lapel. Then when they refuse to buy it I educate them on copyrights…

… then I make a mental note not to use them to sell my house.


  1. jgm3 says:

    The last bit was perfect…spoken like a true MAD artist!

  2. Great comments Tom. I should be so bold.

  3. Mark Hill says:

    How true. The funniest thing to me is that these folks have the money to pay for promotional materials. Home prices have skyrocketed all over the country in the past few years…doubling in some areas in a short period of time. Yet, realtors still make the same commission on every sale — so, with no additional work their incomes have multiplied. (They might argue that it is a bit tougher market right now, but that’s only in comparison to the record-setting boom times they have enjoyed for several years.)

    Additionally, realtors have banded together nationally to denounce any service that pops up offering alternatives to their 5-6% fees…(like say, “Help you sell” or sell-it-yourself realty models, at much reduced rates)…calling such things unethical and unfair to their profession. Fine, go ahead and announce that belief. But if you’re trying to avoid paying a normal fee on a promotional caricature, and instead go to a theme park caricaturist, that line of thought is highly hypocritical.

  4. GregW says:

    Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the article. I do not think that the majority of customers know that it isn’t o.k. to use their caricature in any way they see fit. When the public pays for something they generally consider it to be ‘theirs’ unless they are educated about it BEFORE the purchase.

    I’m wondering if you have signs, or if your artists educate customers before purchase about what they can and can’t do with the caricature?

    Thanks as always for your blog. I read it daily!

  5. […] uninformed. (See cartoonist Tom Richmond’s thoughts about Innocent Internet Infringement and Realtors on his blog.) If you do see your work being infringed upon, even if it’s small, don’t […]


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

Workshops Ad

Dracula ad

Doctor Who Ad

Superman Ad

%d bloggers like this: