Publishing Rights For Cartoons and Illustrations

As mentioned in one of my earlier articles, I break down my cartoon business into two basic categories: licensing and publishing – that approach may not be suitable for everyone, but it works for me.

A fellow cartoonist emailed me after reading the earlier article and asked about publishing rights. Again, for a more complete, legal answer to rights and how they work, I’d refer readers to attorney and cartoonist Stu Rees, who happens to be the leading expert on this topic, particularly because his clientele is made up primarily of cartoonists. He has negotiated many syndicate contracts and is passionate about protecting the rights of his fellow scribblers. And he’s just a nice guy, which helps.

Here’s how I understand rights, and what I negotiate for as I make my work available in the publishing markets. I’ll preamble the remainder of the article with the understanding that all of what follows will be in regard to U.S. rights, since that is where the majority of my personal experience lies. As you negotiate with a publisher, the territory the rights are to apply to must be very clearly delineated – worldwide rights are sometimes required, but often unnecessarily broad, and become an avoidable hindrance for the artist. If a magazine distributes solely in North America, it should be sufficient to provide only those territorial rights. Negotiate for the actual area of likely distribution – remember, the more you provide, the greater your compensation should be.

First, and most advantageous for the cartoonist is “One-Time, Non-Exclusive” rights. What that means is you are giving permission for that magazine, book, website, newsletter or other media to use your cartoon one time, and that it will NOT be exclusive to them. Now here’s something to consider; as a professional courtesy, even though the magazine or other media may only be seeking these most basic of rights, I would refrain from turning around and selling that same cartoon to another entity in the same category, or a reasonably assumed competitor of the first. For instance, if you sell one-time, non-exclusive rights to use your cartoon in a golfing magazine, then in the same month sell it to another golf magazine, while you would be within your rights to do that, it is nonetheless bad form. Selling one-time non-exclusive rights to use your cartoons or illustrations permits you to maintain an active and expanding inventory of art – the more you keep, the more you can use that same cartoon in the future to bring income. At the end of the transaction, you still own all unrestricted rights to your work to do with as you wish, and that’s good business. When you are negotiating with a magazine or other publishing entity, communicate actively with them to determine what they really need in terms of rights. They may as a matter of course seek more than they really need, which is a detriment to you, and them, since the more rights they require, the more expensive it will be to use your work. It’s like buying a new car – you can get a completely unadorned basic model, or you can go full-on fancy schmancy, or somewhere in between, but you know going in that every additional ‘extra’ will need to be paid for. Same with our cartoons and illustrations.

Since I work in the United States, and at least at this time, the majority of my work is sold to U.S. publishing entities, this article will reflect that as we discuss the next tier of rights. I would be relatively certain that there are close parallels in the UK, Australia and other markets, but that discussion should be generated by someone with a more complete understanding of rights in those areas.

First rights are exactly that – the right to be the first to publish your specified artistic work. Here’s where it gets tricky; some publications purchase material far in advance of publication, which means your artwork will remain inaccessible and in limbo until that entity decides to publish the piece. I’ve heard a number of horror stories regarding this issue. For example, what if the magazine editor who loved your work leaves, and another who isn’t so enthusiastic comes in – your work could be held up for years. Only after publication will you be free to re-enter that particular work back into the marketplace. If possible, try to agree on a “publish by” date, or a release date so your rights to the work will be clearly specified and understood.

First North American Rights reflect exactly what the term implies – the right to publish your cartoon or illustration, which has not been published anywhere else in the past, for the first time in North America. As you can see, this is a bit of a step up in rights from the one-time, non-exclusive, and would be more expensive for the publishing entity. Once the cartoon or illustration has been published, all the rights revert back to you to sell again to another magazine. Nice, right? A caveat should be added here – English language should be specified within the agreement as North American rights, when discussing art rather than other goods, typically refers to the U.S. and Canada. Should Mexico be included, foreign language rights (Spanish) should be made clear and agreed to. Another feature that can be added to these rights is a period of exclusivity. For instance, if the magazine is seeking First Time North American Rights with one year exclusivity, they want the rights we have discussed above, and in addition to that, they don’t want anyone else to be able to publish for one year. Again, another warning: that period of exclusivity should have a clearly understood commencement date, such as at the time the rights to the work are purchased (to be published at a later date), or at publication, which takes us back to that fuzzy area that should also be made clear – an agreed “publish by” or release date.

There are other levels and nuances to rights, but we will cover what I consider to be “The Big Ones”, the above which we’ve briefly discussed, and now the last, all rights. While there are legitimate reasons to sell all rights to your work, they should be exceedingly good reasons accompanied by prodigeous amounts of compensation. Once you sell all rights, the work belongs entirely to someone else, and they may do with it as they please, including licensing it out for royalties, making it available to other publications, and sell it for their benefit over and over again, and you’ll never make another penny from it – your work. I have been approached on several occasions in the past to sell all rights to my work, but have yet to do so, as I have not yet been given a compelling enough reason, or financially substantial enough offer to surrender forever the fruits of my labor. And even if you should be given a compelling enough reason (like a gajillion dollars and all the free bon-bons you can eat), specific language should be included in the agreement that bans the creation and use of derivative products from your art. It would be understandable and perhaps necessary that foreign language translations be permitted, but that would be the reasonable extent of alteration to your work. This is especially important if you’ve created recurring or recognizable characters, which could end up being used in an infinite number of ways with no expectation of compensation to you, and in which method of use you may disapprove of.

This is a very brief, birds-eye view of rights as I use and negotiate them, but as mentioned, I’m not a lawyer or legal expert. My sincerest thanks to Stu Rees for giving this article a ‘sanity check’ prior to its publication – he has improved its content, accuracy and usefulness greatly, and through the course of more than one draft. I strongly recommend the numerous books on the topic, and I understand Stu Rees will be writing a series of articles on this topic for our benefit, which he anticipates having available sometime in the next few months. I suspect those will be required reading for anyone who is serious about their art and its commercial uses. I hope this helps and I’m always open to input for the illumination and education of myself and fellow artists.

About billabbottcartoons

Syndicated, licensed cartoonist/humorous artist. My work has appeared in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, Harvard Business Review, Medical Economics, American Fitness, Long Island Business Journal, Illinois Busness Journal, and many more. Additionally, my work has been published in greeting cards by various companies around the world including Hallmark UK..
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