The matter of rights is a tricky one with every form of art. Yet it’s the part that many fail to recognize the importance of.
Think of it this way. When you create something, you’re essentially giving rise to something that potentially has infinite value. Your creative work can continue to accrue value even long after your death. Think of Van Gogh. Think of all the Warhol pieces. Think of all the Disney movies. Think of The Lord of the Rings. They’re going to continuously generate value far into the future.
Which is why it’s very important to think of rights. Admittedly, they can be mind boggling. Like, how long will the rights be given for? What is the extent of the rights? What do the rights assigned allow, and what don’t they allow?
The possibilities around rights can go on for quite long, but it’s very important to know and identify all of them.
This is where we turn to Aaron’s story. He had something to tell us in regards to an episode concerning copyrights, and it was a good demonstration of how complex the issue can become:
There was a time when I was commissioned 4 digital concept drawings to illustrate a product to participants in a market research series. The client named his budget as 400$ for 4 drawings, with the intention of using them in a limited number of market research sessions. I articulated the price and usage in the contract, and placed a limit on the amount of time and number of sessions he could use the images, reflecting the info he gave me and the relatively low budget. At this the buyer balked, as he assumed he was buying them outright to do whatever he needed with them and could continue to use them to sell the product indefinitely ... for 100$ per drawing. What's more he stated this was standard practice with artists he had used before.
It was a reminder to me that whenever a new client approaches for illustration work, the first sentence after "Hello" should be "What you will be purchasing is a collection of rights to use the image you are commissioning." Or something like that. And then the conversation can begin about what copyrights are, what I am selling them and how that relates to their budget. It's frustrating to think that in a world where every profit angle is covered by zealous business people, they can often arrive unprepared for how copyrights would work in the illustration business, and that many artists themselves lack the understanding of copyrights and their potential for maximizing the value of their artworks. So ignorance piles on top of ignorance, until each of us takes the initiative to learn about the copyrights we hold and educate potential clients about what they are in fact purchasing.
So let’s analyze this. Obviously this client wanted to buy off Aaron’s work for discount, because these market research sessions are quite valuable, and you can do them over and over again. So with $400, the client is getting not a bargain, but basically a steal.
Aaron recognizes that, and what he also inherently understands is that every work he builds is an asset. Instead of just completely losing control of his asset, he decides to build a contract that protects himself from completely losing control of the rights over his works.
The businessman, hoping to have his cost reduced, rejects the deal. I guess he thinks he could probably just get it done by using clipart from PowerPoint. Nevertheless, Aaron rightfully stands his ground.
And here, is where Aaron hits home with a pointer:
What every illustrator eventually learns when they enter the marketplace is that there is an endless process of education both for themselves and their clients on what one is actually buying when commissioning an illustration project. All created works of art come with them a bundle of rights around usage and reproduction (including things like the length of time a client can use a particular work and the medium and scope of distribution) each of which has value that can be exchanged for agreed upon amounts of money.
As Aaron suggests, the process of education for both themselves and their clients, is endless. In other words: “no one knows what the hell they’re doing."
Therein lies the reason why you should be adamant about how you decide the value of your own work. Provided that you’re not being unreasonable. You need to think about these things, because one thing in this industry is that if it isn’t you, no one else is going to defend your business. In the business of artists, there are no trade unions, no associations. No legal case precedents to back you up. You need to stand your ground and say: this is my rate, this is my price. These are the extra details. If you want to negotiate that’s cool, but if you don’t like what I’m offering, get out and find someone else.
And clients. Here’s also the deal. You get what you paid for. If you want to cheapskate your way out, muscle your way into capturing rights by dangling money at artists, you’ll get some shitty results.
Alas, this is why this industry is difficult to rein in. There are no set rules. People are always second guessing what to do, and that is the problem. Particularly in the world of rights, we become unsure a lot of the times, but your works are basically your intellectual property. They clearly have a monetary value attached to them, and if you one day decide to give it away for something less than its value, then there is a problem.
From an artist’s perspective, often times the client seems like they have the upper hand, which is understandable. They hold the money.
But also remember that artists hold the services. The clients are coming to the artists because they clearly cannot do the tasks that need to be done. They do not have what it takes to perform a creative service that will result in a piece of work that will fulfill their needs.
And most of all, like I mentioned earlier, know that you hold in your hands, the power to create infinite value. Of course everyone is going to try to take it at a discount, because depending on how it’s used, a creative work can derive a great amount of value accrued to the owner of it. Just starting from there, will help you navigate your career better.
Also, as additional reading material, Aaron suggests the Graphic Artists’ Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. Make sure to check it out!