Illustration Licensing and Copyright Intro for Clients
Understanding When and Where You Can Use Images, for Scientists, Authors, and Tech Companies
Are you excited about having your custom illustration created, and feeling eager to start? Do you know which copyrights, AKA uses, you’ve been licensed? If not, you will want to pause and confirm. One important step in the art creation process is clarifying with the artist what copyrights you’ve paid for. We’re writing this from the perspective of science communicators who provide illustration and animation, but much of this holds true artists, photographers, and even writers.
In this post I will give you an overview of image copyrights* and what that means to you as a client. And, since we artists all approach things a bit differently, I’ll provide some insight into our approach at Sayo Studio. Understanding copyright basics will empower you to ensure you can use the image for all your needs, and help you avoid unforeseen costs. If first, you need to learn more about what to expect when working with a science studio, see our FAQ series on how to find a science communicator, and how to hire a science illustrator or animator.
*And please note, I’m not a lawyer, so please use your own judgment and check with your legal team.
Copyright Information From the Authorities
Before I launch into the details, let’s start with a definition from the United States Copyright Office:
Copyright is a form of protection provided by U.S. law to authors of “original works of authorship,” including “pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works.” The owner of copyright in a work has the exclusive right to make copies, prepare derivative works, sell or distribute copies, and display the work publicly. Anyone else wishing to use the work in these ways must have the permission of the author or someone who has derived rights through the author.
After reading the above, some may wonder if the commissioner owns the copyright. “If it is my idea, don’t I own the copyright?” That’s a great question, and the answer lies in the definition of authorship. The author (AKA copyright owner) physically creates the work, using their training and experience to do so. Thus, any use of the artwork must be OK’d by the image creator that you have hired.
Surprising to many, an idea cannot be copyrighted. The copyright is given to the tangible product, brought to life by the skills, experience, and labor of the artist. It’s up to the artist or photographer what uses they allow you to have. They can license these rights to you and others, broken up in any manner. Each artist handles their licensing a bit differently. In an ideal world, this is clarified up-front, but some beginning (and not-so-beginning!) artists aren’t aware of their rights.
Rights? I’m Still Confused… Oh, Do You Mean, Where and How I Want to Use My Commissioned Graphics?
So really, whenever we’re talking about “Rights”, we’re talking about uses. Where do you need to use the art, and for how long? For example, if you approached an artist to create an image for your book cover, the printed book is one use. What you may not have thought of is that use in a digital edition is considered separate from the printed book, as is using it on your website, or social media, or using the image for advertising.
To complicate things further, some artists, especially those just starting out, aren’t aware of these rights. If the illustrator you’re working with hasn’t specified the rights you’re licensed, it’s safe to assume that the initial use you approached them about (say, a book cover), is the ONLY usage, AND that this use is non-exclusive (what does exclusivity mean?). That’s why it’s so important to clarify up-front what you need, and what’s included.
Here at Sayo Studio, I’ve learned over the years that licensing is confusing. To simplify the process for myself and my clients, I try to wrap in as many uses that make sense to my client’s core use. So for a magazine, I wrap both print and digital usage into my base licensing. (Jump to my approach) But many artists have a much narrower definition of included base rights. For example, it’s not uncommon to limit usage to the first year. So make sure you check!
Deciding What Image Copyrights You Really Need:
At this point, you may be wondering what rights you might possibly want. Often, people assume that they need ALL the rights. I know, you want to use the illustration for any unforeseen product, and make sure that no one else uses it. The problem with that approach is that it’s expensive, and it’s almost always overkill.
Here are some questions to ask yourself so that you can communicate your needs to the artist, and ascertain what licensing fees may be required beyond the initial illustration creation cost.
- Usage— Where will your art be used?
- Will your artwork be printed? (A book, a report, a magazine…)
- What about a digital copy? Website or app?
- Social Media outreach?
- Paid Advertisements in other publications?
- Exhibit Displays?
- Duration — Is the work licensed for 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, or a lifetime?
- Exclusivity – Can others use the art in your industry? In your country? Do you want total exclusivity? (More below)
One concept that trips up a lot of my clients, is the idea of exclusivity. The default, even if not specified, is that the usage you’re paying for is non-exclusive. Non-exclusive means that someone else can ALSO use the art on a similar product, say, another book cover. So if it’s important that your image isn’t used by anyone else, make sure you communicate that, but also expect to pay a premium. Essentially, the creator is giving up their ability to re-license the art. Re-selling use of art is a valuable revenue stream for image creators— one that they give up if they’ve licensed you exclusive rights.
The industry guidebook, “Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines”, specifies that exclusive use, similar to ALL-Rights, costs anywhere from 200% to 500% of the base price.
Cost-Effective Solutions When You Need Exclusive Rights
Fortunately, if you really do need exclusive license options—in other words, no one else can use the image—there are more cost-effective solutions. Using our book cover as an example, here are a few ways to narrow down our exclusive use to make it work in your budget. Exclusive use can be narrowed to:
- a specific product: the artist could re-sell the image to others for anything OTHER than book covers… websites, newspapers, presentations, etc…
- use across the industry: the artist cannot re-sell the image to other book publishers (this can be narrowed even further to specify trade book, educational publication, etc…). In this example, it could be re-licensed for use by tech companies or museums.
- a set amount of time. Do you really need exclusivity for a lifetime, or will 5 years suffice? This is a good way to compromise with an artist!
And finally, if you’re considering investing in an exclusive license to the illustration, think about how likely it is that someone else will use it. Of course, if you’re a tech company, you don’t want a competitor using your image for a competing innovation. But then again, is the illustration so unique to your technology that others won’t use it anyway?
How Does SayoStudio Handle Illustration Usage Licensing?
One of the reasons I’m writing this article is because I know how confusing licensing can be. I don’t want anyone to be unclear about what they’re paying for, or how they can use the illustrations we’ve crafted together. As mentioned earlier, I tend to wrap more uses into the base price than many other artists. Honestly, it saves you AND I time. That way, you can use the image for your primary needs without having to check on permissions.
My one sticking point is exclusivity. After 15+ years in the industry, I’ve learned that royalties from re-selling illustrations add-up, and you never know which image is going to gain traction. Yet, I know that working with me is a big investment, and I try my best to price fairly. Because I know that exclusivity is necessary for many industries, specifically for health and technology companies, here are some of the ways I narrow down rights (and help clients stay in budget):
- Industry vs ALL-Rights exclusivity, and…
- 5-year terms vs. Lifetime
Summarizing Illustration and Animation Usage
When you’re investing in commissioned artwork to represent your story, it’s important to understand copyright basics. Otherwise, it can be an unhappy surprise to find that you can’t use your artwork for everything and anything without breaking your budget. I hope I’ve answered some of your questions and given you insight into licensing costs. If you have more questions about how we price our work, we’ve written a Science Communication Pricing Guideline. Copyrights can be complex, and we appreciate your time reading this introduction!
- Sayo Art Pricing and Licensing calculator
- SayoStudio Images Available for Re-Use
- SayoStudio Images Free to Use (Public Domain) select the tab for free images
- United States Copyright Office
- Graphic Artists Guild Handbook of Ethical
- Coming soon: client copyright examples by industry
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