Licensing art work

Licensing artwork is basically like renting it out your picture for a short period of time. You are letting someone else, usually a publisher or company, use a copy (or copies) of your original artwork for a limited time in a limited space. This could be a one-off use (an illustration in a magazine) or multiple ongoing uses (the illustration for yogurt packaging). The image belongs and always will belong to you and you alone.

When you license your work out you must have a contract, and you should make sure that it covers the following in writing:

  • That you as the artist are the sole copyright holder, an have exclusive rights to your work, in perpetuity. It’s yours forever. In the UK and Europe this is already established in law, you don’t have to do anything. In America and China you have to register each work with the copyright office to get this protection.
  • However, you can let others borrow the artwork for a while. This means you transfer (=license) rights to another entity, including the right to make copies, distribute, publicly display, and/or make derivatives of your work. It could be all or some of the above.
  • But for a limited amount of time only. (Usually. You could sign away the rights forever, if that’s what you choose, but make sure you get more cash for it).
  • Where and how often is the artwork to be used? Once in a magazine? On a website? On a book cover published in the UK and Europe for a print run of 4,000 copies?
  • They should not be able to mess with your work. If you are allowing them to change something, like cropping an image or reducing its size, be crystal clear about what is permitted and state that any other alteration is not allowed, unless the change is made by you the artist for an additional fee.
  • Time and format of delivery of artwork. June 5th, a digital .tiff file of such and such dimensions, or a watercolour of x by x inches or whatever.
  • Fees. How much and when paid. Do you get a flat fee, half up front and half within a month of the work being delivered? Do you get a royalty, a percentage of gross sales (it must be gross, ie according to the retail price, otherwise if you factor in the clients expenses that could be any amount, and is ‘hard to quantify’)? Or a royalty plus an advance?
  • You should also have terms of cancellation – if they cancel the project and you’ve been working on the piece for six months, what will they pay in compensation? If you cancel at the last minute, it’s only fair you pay them something. What about acts of God, earthquakes and tsunamis? (This might only need to be included in Chinese contracts, but it means no one pays compensation, it’s nobodies fault).
  • No Exclusivity. It’s fine for you to license the same artwork or other artwork to other companies, and equally your client can license artwork from other artists.
  • But at the same time the company is not allowed to transfer the licensing rights for your artwork to someone else.
  • Then there’s the legal bits, but these are trickier because they depend on the country you’re in. For example in America you can say the client is legally responsible for any dispute arising from their use of the artist’s artwork, protecting the artist. In China my last contract said if the company gets in trouble for using my artwork, it’s all on me. Other general legal bits that are useful are things like if one condition of the contract is found to be invalid, it does not affect the rest of the contract, that’s still legal binding. That kind of thing.

As I mentioned on the post on how much to charge for illustrations, it’s a good idea to have a look at stock art licensing sites like Getty Images, and click through to see what they charge – and more importantly for licensing, what they are actually charging for.

Artrepreneur offers a licensing agreement which seems to hit all the main points. This is a great article on copyright for illustrators.

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