It’s actually really simple: every time you create a new, original piece of work you own the copyright to it. Instantly. Automatically. You don’t need to apply for it, it’s yours… even if you don’t finish the piece. The main exception is if you become a full-time employee of a company or are working on a licensed character or something similar. But then if you are an in-house illustrator you’ll be entitled to holidays, sick pay, maternity leave, maybe a pension and all the other awesome things you get when you’re an employee rather than being your own boss. In return for those things and a regular wage, as long as you’re not on a zero hour contract and you feel you have job security, I think it’s a fair compromise to give up your copyright and become a work-for-hire cowboy.
But when you’re your own boss and you have to cover all those things yourself, why would you give up your copyright? There’s almost never a good reason to sell full rights when you can sell a client a license and save the client a pretty penny in the process. Yes you heard me right, by not selling your copyright to a client you’re saving them money. Take your typical fee (not including full rights) and add 100-150% to it; that’s how much you should be charging for the copyright. If you already include the copyright when you sell an image, you need to half your fee… is that enough? If you don’t think so, you are undercharging for your work, undervaluing yourself and making it more difficult for other hard-working illustrators to charge a proper fee. Not to mention you could be damaging future relationships with your clients when you realise you should have been charging them more. When you quote for a job, never include the copyright and always give the client a few licensing options. If the client does ask for copyright, and you’re willing to sell it, double up your highest quote. They may need it, they may want it, but if that’s the case they should be paying for it.
Some Big Companies at this stage will tell the artist they want to buy or own all copyrights to the image created. For instance, if Disney commissioned me to do an illustration featuring Mickey Mouse, well, they own Mickey Mouse. They would not want me later on licensing the illustration to a company that makes Disney toys for sale with a product, because Disney wants to own and control the Mickey Mouse brand. So, they will without a doubt tell me that working for them means they will purchase the entire copyright from me. This leaves me with no secondary streams of revenue. This usually costs money, and Big Companies typically pay accordingly.
– Learning How to Commission Illustration by Randy Gallegos
When you sell a client a license it’s either time-limited or usage-limited or a mixture of both. For example, you might sell an editorial license for a newly commissioned image to a publisher permitting them to only use it in their magazine or on their website as part of a certain article. You’re then free to sell the same image to an apparel company or an advertising company who might use it as part of a motion graphic. But to avoid a conflict where two companies are using the same image at the same time, you might sell the first company an exclusive 12 month license, so although they can still only use it for certain things without paying extra and extending their usage, they’ll be the only ones with the image for 12 months. You can even offer them a renewal when the license expires or offer them a longer license in the first place. Alternatively you might offer them an exclusive perpetual license on using the image in their magazine. They then have it exclusively for a specific usage forever, so why would they want to pay extra for the copyright?
I don’t believe that an illustrator should never sell their copyright. I just think that when they do, they should be paid appropriately for it – and if they don’t, they should be able to bring in a secondary revenue stream from the work they’ve created through additional licensing. Obviously, when an illustrator has more experience they can demand a higher fee for their work, but over time an illustrator’s actual portfolio should gain value too.
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