Know Your Rights Before You Sign the Dotted Line
For the record, I’m not a lawyer, just someone who’s faced a number of contracts over the years. So a quick disclaimer that you shouldn’t consider this post as professional legal advice; if anything discussed here piques your interest or concern, follow up with a real legal adviser.
Comics offer a lot of opportunities for collaborations and teamwork. As you navigate the world of comic and illustration projects, it’s important to know your rights and things to consider when facing a contract.
First, be aware of whether you’re contributing as a freelancer or work-for-hire. According to Copyright Law, an “author”—that’s you, as the creator—owns the copyright to their work. In terms of comics, this means you own your own work. Write a script? That story and dialogue is yours. Draw pages or illustrations for a project? You own that art and its copyright. However, if the contract calls out a “work-for-hire” or “work-made-for-hire” agreement, that all changes; in work-for-hire, the employer owns the work and its copyright outright.
This distinction carries weight as you negotiate the rest of the terms of the agreement. By and large, if you’re working with one of the “Big Two” publishers, on a licensed property, or with another creative team’s IP, then you’re working work-for-hire. In this case, it’s understood why the employer would want to own your contribution, since it’s derivative work in support of their own property. As a creator, then, it’s up to you to decide what you find equitable in return. For example:
- Depending on the publisher or project, consider a page rate higher than you would a freelance gig where you ultimately own the work and its copyright.
- If drawing analog, who owns the physical original pages, which may have an aftermarket value?
- If the proposed payment isn’t substantial (and let’s face it, in comics, this is likely the case), determine how much effort you’re willing to contribute for that rate alone, or how likely the project will open the door for future (and more equitable) work and opportunities.
If a freelancer, that same ratio of payment-for-effort comes into play. But since you ultimately own the copyright, be aware of what rights you might be signing away in terms of content reuse. Determine the terms around when the work’s ownership reverts back to you and the content’s reuse. For example:
- While the initial publication may be for single issue “floppies,” how does the contract address reuse, such as in a subsequent collection?
- Does the contract explicitly state that the rights revert back to you immediately upon the initial publication?
- Does the publisher request rights to republish the work in multiple contexts?
- If a project of your own creation, does the publisher require exclusivity where the work can’t be published elsewhere for a certain window of time?
All of these considerations should factor into your agreement and expectations. Ultimately, any contract and agreement is a negotiation and compromise. It was once said that the best deal is one where neither party gets exactly what they want. As you determine how much you’re willing to give or take, consider these factors to protect yourself and your work (just as the publisher or employer looks to protect their own interests).
Additional thoughts or considerations when it comes to contracts? Share them in the ShoutFyre forum!
Editor, Artist, Letterer, Colorist Steve is the long-running cartoonist at the Charleston, SC alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, where he skewers politicians and criminals (and criminal politicians) alike with editorial cartoons and police blotter illustrations every issue. Steve was best known his indie comic book (and subsequent webcomic) BOONDOGGLE