Little legal things for illustrators

Illustrators make the world go round. There, we said it! And what’s more, we mean it. Over the years, illustrators have been responsible for visualizing and bringing to life, some of our favourite stories and ideas. This makes them a highly sought after group of artists, with a compelling set of skills. Being a part of an incredibly competitive creative industry, illustrators have to be aware of their rights as creative professionals and creators.

Do I really need a contract?

We get asked this question a lot, and our answer is always a resounding YES. Most artists will agree that a signed contract is essential before beginning a project, although we understand that this doesn’t always translate into an actual step. Contracts and agreements have earned a pretty bad rep for being bulky, one-sided, and difficult to understand. Not all contracts are designed to be such a difficult read, and for those that are, we recommend finding a good lawyer, mentor or colleague to help you with them.

Contracts are the easiest way to hold a client or partner or collaborator, to their promises. Whether long or short, heavy or light on the jargon, a contract provides you with a written record of the entire professional relationship you are about to engage in. It’s a document worth investing time and resources into, because it’s the blueprint of the project’s financial, creative and ownership details. This is the place where you get to voice your concerns about reimbursements, deadlines, creative control, money and what happens if someone messes up on carrying out those promises.

Whose right is it anyway?

Illustrators need to be fierce about their rights. This means that there needs to be a healthy amount of awareness of what those rights are and how important they are. It’s at times like this, that being part of a creative community can really come in handy, because there’s always someone to turn to, when needing to clarify doubts and learning about the industry, so that you as an illustrator, can make an informed decision. There’s a lot to discuss about rights, but here are a few quick points for you to keep in mind:

  1. Copyrights are valuable. You don’t need a registration to claim a copyright (you can learn more about how all of that works here), but you do need to formally give your copyright away for someone else to own it. So be careful about that.
  2. When you’re thinking about rights, think about whether you want to sell your rights or license them instead? Licensing gives you a lot more flexibility, without disconnecting you from your work.
  3. Are you working for hire? Here’s something that might help you answer that.
  4. Ask for portfolio rights (which allow you to showcase your work), moral rights (that protect your work’s integrity) and be careful around concepts of territories and mediums.
  5. Exclusive or non-exclusive? That’s up to you to decide, but make sure it’s a decision you’re comfortable with.
Photo by Howard Lawrence B on Unsplash

Can I protect my style or my characters?

Grey area alert. Style is a difficult thing to contextualize in the realm of copyright law or trademark law. Copyright is meant to protect expressions, but style is only one of the many components of what comprises expression. Trademark protection is also a bit fuzzy on protecting visual style, although there has been some discussion on trademark stepping in when ‘signing off’ on a work. We’ve covered more on protecting visual style here, and encourage you to give it a read. Characters are a little less tricky, although they do come with their own conditions. Again, we’ve covered the dos and dont’s of protecting and owning literary characters in this post and super hero characters here, but the golden rule remains, that the more detailed the character, the better are your chances of laying claim to it.

And what about the money?

Protecting your work is definitely a priority, but illustrators often face a bigger challenge – skipped or delayed payments. Now while this is a problem that continues to plague creative professionals across industries, illustrators and designers often do see the worst of it. This seems especially true for younger artists, who also have to deal with the misappropriation and/or plagiarism of their work by a client or sometimes, others in the industry. So how can we tackle this? It’s a complex problem, but here’s a two part solution to help you break this down. The first part is about precautions – get your engagement in writing, and make sure that you don’t avoid discussion of all terms, even the ones that seem unnecessary or awkward, like reimbursements, deliverable schedules, the number of revisions – don’t be afraid to be thorough. Keep records of your work, and don’t throw away your rough sketches in a hurry. Use email. The second part is about what to do when you hit a roadblock – seek advice. If your contract makes room for dispute resolution, then that’s a route that you can follow. Going to court is an option, but be warned that it will take time, money and effort. Explore alternatives like mediation. But most of all, tackling problems like these need to become a community effort, and this is why you need to be a part of, and helping create a strong community of professionals in your industry.

We’ve tried to cover a few legal pointers that might be useful to illustrators, but are always open to a larger discussion. If you have questions or suggestions that you think can help continue the conversation, please leave us a comment below.

Featured Photo by Claudia Nuta on Unsplash

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