Sunday Mailbag

February 17th, 2013 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Can you explain what rights you give your clients for artwork most of the time?  Also, how does that affect pricing?  Are there any rules to follow to price work properly? I find that a lot of people expect full rights most of the time.  I always have a hard time pricing my illustration work because of this.

A: I can’t discuss actual pricing with you as that violates U.S. Antitrust laws specifically “price fixing”, but I can give you plenty of general comments.

Many people get confused about what an illustrator is actually selling to their client. Unless there is a separate agreement for the original work, an illustrator does not sell the actual art to a client, they sell the rights to use that art. Yes, you create the artwork specifically for the client, but what they are really buying from you is the rights to reproduce it. What kind of rights you sell and how it is to be used makes a difference as to what a client pays for those rights, and those rights are spelled out in your agreement with the client. There are two basic kinds of ways to work with clients: as an independent contractor or as work for hire.

In an independent contractor agreement, the artist grants use rights for their work based on the client’s needs and whatever limitations the artist sets and agrees to. For magazine illustration, the rights I would typically sell would be for a single usage in the publication. More and more, magazines also want the rights to use the image on their website, since they often mirror content from the publication online. In the case of web use, you can specify a time limit for use… since that content can be online forever if they want it to be. The key point in this type of arrangement is that the illustrator has the rights to the image outside the original agreement… theoretically you can resell the rights to that same illustration to another client later, similar to how a gag cartoonist can sell the same cartoon to several magazines. That seldom happens, but the artist does retain the rights. The fees for a limited usage like that vary depending on the client, how big they are, their circulation if they are a publication, etc.

The other end of the independent contractor spectrum is “full rights”, where the artist actually sells the full copyright to the artwork to the client, in perpetuity. More and more, clients are wanting that type of agreement so they are free to use the image for the web, maybe on products, whatever. Full rights means you no longer own or have any control over what they do with the image. You can’t even use it on your own website in a portfolio without their permission. It might seem to make sense to just give up full rights to an illustration because the chances of ever reselling it to another client is generally pretty small… most illustrations are created for a specific purpose and visual, that will seldom apply to another project. However, your work does have a value to they original client, and getting full rights gives them unlimited powers to use that art, and that does have a value. It varies, but if a client wants full rights for an illustration, I will typically increase my original fee by 50%-100%. Some clients don’t get this, they think you do the same amount of artwork, and what’s the difference? You have to educate them as to why full rights cost more.

The other client/artist relationship is work for hire, which means everything you do, from sketches to the final, is owned solely by the client and you as the illustrator have zero rights to any of it, including the original art. Working woth licensed characters or in advertising is typically a work for hire arrangement. I’ve got a long post about work for hire, so you can read that for more information.

Agreements can be a pain to put together, but it’s a bigger pain NOT to have an agreement in place. Many clients have their own standard agreement, but many don’t have any agreement, so you should have one. A great resource for both learning the legal aspects of copyright and finding templates for basic copyright agreements is The Legal Guide for the Visual Artist by Tad Crawford. I use a modified version of his illustrator’s agreement. It’s a great place to start with this type of thing.

Thanks to Willie for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

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