Sunday Mailbag

May 19th, 2013 | Posted in General

Q: You’ve written here before that when you do a freelance job for a client, they technically aren’t buying artwork from you but the rights to use artwork. What kind of copyrights do they typically get?

A: Absolutely correct on that first part. While most freelance projects involve creating artwork specifically for a client’s needs, ultimately they are really paying for the copyrights to use that artwork for their purposes. At least, that’s the case in an independent contractor agreement. In a work for hire agreement, they are paying only for the artwork creation because they own every pencil line and the full copyrights to anything created for the job… but that’s another story.

It varies job to job, but “typically” a client buys the rights to use the artwork created for the project one time for that particular purpose. For a magazine, that’s usually means for that single issue. For an advertisement, that means for the duration of that particular ad campaign. For a book, it would mean for that single title and subsequent reprints. A freelance agreement should spell out the copyrights being transferred, so there is no mistaking what a client is getting. Some of the limitations that might be imposed would be geographic (north America only, for example), time used (perhaps one or two years), exclusivity, etc.

The web complicates matters, as usual. Since it’s entirely dynamic, only time limitations apply. I typically “throw in” web use for any publication illustrations I do these days, since every publication has a website and wants to use the illustration for either ads for subscriptions or for digital versions of the story.

In practice, most freelance jobs are for a specific purpose that is so specific use of the image beyond it’s original purpose is not really applicable anyway, but it’s always a good idea to have the rights spelled out in writing.

Thanks to R. Griffin 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.


  1. Thanks, Tom! Your info is precious. It helps a lot begginers , I am always reading.

  2. Carlos Sousa says:

    Ol?° Tom!
    I am Portuguese, and I am an admirer of its blog.
    As desenhador, for me you are the largest.


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