Who owns the rights if you're a freelance designer/artist, and what is common?
October 13, 2007 9:43 PM   Subscribe

Who owns the rights if you're a freelance designer/artist, and what is common? A friend asked this question that I am also curious about myself. She was approached to have some of her drawings used for t-shirts -- she does not freelance at all, so is not sure how to go about this (obviously, I don't know either). The person who has asked basically wishes to purchase the art and retain all rights for present and future use. I understand that working out a contract is the best way to determine specific rights, but is there a norm that most graphic designers follow? Where do you draw the line? Is it common to have the client own all the rights to the work purchased? Many thanks in advance.
posted by branparsons to Work & Money (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry about the lengthy paragraph. My first time posting a question here.
posted by branparsons at 9:45 PM on October 13, 2007

It really depend on the scale of economy.
If it the shirts are going to be sold in tens of thousands, the designer should do her best to get some kind of loyalty contract drawn... In most cases at this scale, the logo designer keeps the design rights and actually sells the license for its design use for the t-shirt.

Even if it is in very small scale operation, I would say the designer keeps the design logo rights and just get a one time flat fee for the logo design. (but you definatelly need written contract, however small the amount is) This way, the t-shirt co. get to use the logo with out too much hassle and the designer has all the rights to reuse the logo if the design takes off.

By the way it is not common to have the client own ALL the rights. (unless the client is actually a full time boss/company of the designer)
posted by curiousleo at 10:12 PM on October 13, 2007

The Artist's & Graphic Designer's Market might be helpful. I haven't seen the latest edition, but it usually has information about exactly the kind of situation you are talking about.
posted by The Deej at 10:18 PM on October 13, 2007

Typically it is "work for hire," though agreements vary.
posted by rhizome at 11:15 PM on October 13, 2007

You need to find a workable formula based on what both parties require and can live with. If these are existing drawings in their own right, your friend has good grounds to resist handing over all rights. She could, for example, sell the rights for the images to be used on t-shirts, or on clothing in general, and retain the other rights. The buyer may or may not want to get into a royalty agreement; unless he expects big sales, to him it may not be worth the trouble of the extra work (you know, counting up all the sales and remitting a cheque every 6 months).
posted by londongeezer at 11:37 PM on October 13, 2007

I would be leery of signing away all the rights, unless it's for a substantial amount of money.

The book I recommend is the Graphic Arts Guild Handbook of Ethical and Pricing Guidelines.
posted by O9scar at 12:48 AM on October 14, 2007

If you're a freelance artist, you own the rights to everything you create unless you sign those rights away. Never do that.

If an illustrator or photographer works for a company as a full time employee, then the company owns the rights to whatever gets produced during that association. This is justified by the fact that the employee gets other benefits for giving up those rights, such as insurance, vacation, etc... plus the guarantee of a steady paycheck.

But if a company only pays an illustrator or photographer on a freelance or contract basis or simply wants to use a piece of existing artwork, they might pay a negotiated fee for that usage, but the copyright would still belong to the creator of the artwork. Don't let them buy exclusive rights.

The guild handbook that O9scar links to is very clear about never signing away your rights. They strongly discourage the use of work-for-hire contracts that assign ownership to the company (outside of an employer/employee relationship). Established illustrators or photographers would tell the company to take a hike if they tried something like that, but younger artists are sometimes pressured into signing a work-for-hire contract to get a job.
posted by Jeff Howard at 1:29 AM on October 14, 2007

When a freelance artist/designer creates something on commission, he/she usually retains the copyright and gives a (however limited/limitless may vary, as the fee that is charged) license of reproduction/commercial use for the materials created. This is usually valid for as little as a brochure for a real estate agency up to the $Name_Your_Multi_Billion_Dollar_Corporation logo and when client and designer break up, may make for some hefty exit negotiation.

In the case of your friend, she should sell them a license for commercial use of her designs (which may be a pre-determined amount plus a royalty fee for each tshirt sold or a "flat" fee which includes all present and future commercial uses). She should never give away her copyright anyway. In the end, this reduces in placing a bid on how successful she and the printer/editor think the designs will be and on his commercial capabilities.

Business size is crucial in such a decision and for as little as some 1000 t-shirts I wouldn't bother setting up a royalty fee (which should have some kind of control mechanism, needless to say).

Obviously, if your friend's designs turn out to be the new Ziggy, and she opted to charge a "flat" fee, without royalties she would be royally screwed.
posted by _dario at 3:17 AM on October 14, 2007

Having done some work in the past for some T-shirt printers, I'll add my 2 cents in here: DON'T let your friend sign her rights away.

My experience went something like this: I negotiated a royalty contract based on yearly sales, with stipulations that I could review the printer's books twice every year. For the first two years everything was OK, but after the third year the printer decided he'd had enough and told me he 'owned my artwork and copyright' and that he wasn't paying me anything. His business model was this: for artwork and copyright, he paid a flat fee of $250-500 to unwitting high school students. Then he'd pay wholesale for blank T-shirts ($2-3 at the time), print up shirts, and resell them to high schools as a fundraising package for $7-9 each. When the amounts of shirts multiplied by the number of high schools is taken into consideration, he was making obscene amounts of money off of those kids.

Bottom line: BE CAREFUL. In my experience, T-shirt printers are somewhere directly below TV lawyers in terms of ethics and trustworthiness.
posted by idiotking at 8:50 AM on October 15, 2007

Response by poster: Very, very informative responses... Thank you so much, guys!!
posted by branparsons at 11:18 PM on October 15, 2007

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