I’ve had the good fortune to have my cartoons used on a variety of different products, from cocktail napkins, calendars, greeting cards, coffee mugs – even produced as figurines. In addition, they’ve appeared in books, magazines, newsletters and websites globally, something I’m extremely honored to be able to say.
Having had all these wonderful experiences, it compels me to offer whatever assistance I am able to newer cartoonists who are trying to make their way in this sometimes confusing, if not daunting, world of rights. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I pretend to be an authority on copyright law, I only offer reflections of my own experience – something that may have value to my fellow cartoonists. For specific information, I would happily recommend attorney extraordinaire, Harvard Law graduate, and passionate cartoonist Stu Rees. Stu has written the definitive work on syndication contracts and has made it available for anyone with aspirations of working with a syndicate. Check out Stu’s site and the National Cartoonist’s Society site for more information.
First, I divide the rights associated with my cartoons into two broad categories. The first is licensing rights, and the second is publishing rights. In my Neanderthal head, it’s easiest to simplify things this way in order to better understand them based on their uses. Licensing, as I define it for my own understanding, is one entity granting permission to another entity to use it’s visual property for the purpose of producing products or materials that would benefit from having that visual property incorporated on that product or material. In other words, a guy who makes coffee mugs won’t sell many mugs if they’re plain, unadorned mugs. Put a “Spectickles” cartoon on it, and it will no doubt sell a hundred gajillion – at least. So mug-maker guy approaches me to ask if he can put my cartoons on his mugs in order to sell lots. At this point, we need to figure out how I should be compensated for it, and under what specific conditions he can use the cartoons, and what the geographic limits are – all of which have monetary value. In our discussions, we find that mug-maker guy has a big operation and produces a lot of mugs – enough to fill trucks that go to gift stores all over the United States and Canada. Sounds like he’ll need North American rights. Since he doesn’t (yet) distribute his mugs outside of the US or Canada, there is no need to provide rights outside that area. If he expands in the future, he’ll need to come back to you and seek permission to use your cartoon on his mugs in an expanded territory. And since mug-maker guy only produces mugs and nothing else, you need only grant him the specific rights for coffee-mugs. Since this is made clear in your agreement, you can then take the same image and offer it to greeting card companies, calendar companies, and so on – just NOT to other coffee mug makers in North America. If you are approached by another mug maker who happens to be in England or Australia, you would be well within the confines of your agreement to offer it in these places, as long as their distribution channels keep the mugs in their respective territories.
By carefully managing your rights, you can have a single cartoon used in a variety of licensing categories, all providing streams of royalty-based income. That’s without any mention of publishing rights, which are yet another source of non-conflicting income, separate from licensing. As mentioned earlier, I would recommend more specific discussions with someone like Stu Rees, who are indisputable experts in the world of rights as they pertain to cartoonists.