Should I sell the copyright of my art

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Copyright is one of the most important things you should have a good understanding of whenever you're selling your art. There is a lot of misunderstanding going around among both artists and their clients. Selling/obtaining the copyright then seems like the easiest thing to do, while in fact, you as an artist might end up dealing with a serious headache. Selling the copyright shouldn't even be considered. Instead, licensing is the way to go. So what is the difference? And how do you go about informing your client and creating licenses?

Hi! My name is Tessa, I’m a Dutch artist, specializing in wildlife and creature designs. I love to share my passion for nature, art and fantasy, and do that by creating this archive and community, alongside my company Tez Art & Design.

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What is a copyright?

What is copyright, it’s the first question we should be asking. Copyright is applied to any artwork you make. It does so automatically in most, if not all countries in the world. Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of art. (And also things like photographs, music, books, poems, blog posts, architectural works, etc. etc. etc.) This means that, as soon as you draw something, the copyright applies automatically.

Artwork is original when it’s independently created by a human and has a degree of original creativity. You cannot claim copyright when you overpainted something, photo bashed or copied an image for example that was drawn from a picture. You will actually need to buy the license of the works you used to overpaint/photo bash/use as a reference for you to be able to sell such artworks. This is of course unless stated otherwise. Just be careful with it when you do things like this.

Should I sell the copyright of my art?

No! Never do that! There is no reason why you would want that, other than pleasing your client. And more often than not, your client doesn’t even know what he or she is asking for when they ask for the copyright. So it’s wise to have a good understanding of what copyright is so you can explain to your client why you don’t sell it.

When you sell your copyright you enable your client to:

  • Earn an unlimited amount of money from your artwork and you see nothing from it past the initial price.
  • Resell it to 3rd parties.
  • Use it in ways you don’t like (Like NFT, NSFW, editing the image, etc).
  • Edit the image themselves or have it edited, which usually doesn’t add to the illustration in a good way.
  • Sell it in any way they like.

You own the copyright by default, there is no crime in keeping it. It in fact is business standard that you keep it and give out licenses instead. That way you can control how your art is used at any time. Your client will know what he or she can do and whatnot. And you can give them an exclusive license to the art if they require that (which is usually the case). This means that you sell the exclusive (usually commercial) use to them and you are not able to sell it yourself but do control what’s done with the artwork.

The difference between copyright and license

You might have heard someone say before ‘I don’t deal in copyrights’. It doesn’t mean though they don’t sell licenses, or handle a single price for anything they make. Not selling copyright only means that: They don’t sell away the rights of their own art, just like they should. What they do though (and this might vary a bit from person to person) is:

  • Sell personal commissions for personal use (the default whenever you sell art that’s not commercial).
  • Sell licenses to outline the use of a commercially used artwork.
  • Apply different prices for different kinds of use. (Personal commissions for example usually are priced lower than commercial artworks).

So what is a license compared to copyright?

So what is a license really, compared to copyright?
Copyright, as discussed before, means that you are selling away the rights to your art forever. You cannot control what’s done with it anymore in any way, shape, or form. They can endlessly resell and rework your art, and you can’t do a thing about it. They can even sell licenses to 3rd parties which then, in turn, can use it in any way, shape, or form. Licensing however allows the buyer of your art to do or not do specific things with your artwork. But you keep the copyright. This means ultimately that you will always own your artwork but allow your client to do things with it you specifically outlined.

This image was drawn right from the picture. In this case, the true copyright owner is the person who made the picture in the first place. I got permission from the photographer and the owner of the cat to use the image as a reference and draw their pet.
Don’t do this unless you are doing a study! And always refer to the original photographer!
Also, specify in your contract what you will be able to use for yourself, like using it in a blog like I am doing now.
Illustration by: Tessa Geniets

Things to put in your license

This is a bit a tough cooky to crack because there are so many different branches. So take this advice with a grain of salt and look at your specific situation and client to refine the requirements and take this as no more than a guideline.

  • The amount of copies that can be printed of your artwork (this usually goes into the thousands, tens of thousands, and more). The more copies, the higher the price can be.
  • What kind of prints can be made (e.g.: Book covers, bookmarks, posters, collectibles, etc).
  • Specify what projects it can be used for (e.g.: Digital games, collectible cards, album covers. etc.)
  • Outline how your client can use the art to promote their product. (e.g.: Patreon, free book copies, posters, (online) advertisement, etc.)
  • State what they cannot do to the artwork (This should include things like: Editing the image, or having it edited by a 3rd party).
  • State what they can do to the artwork (Flipping the canvas, cropping the image/zooming in, or using it without the background could be some of the options). It’s recommended though that you provide the images like that if know your client needs them.
  • Add a clause that your client can always return to you to extend the license.

How to inform your client that you do not sell your copyright

There are many ways to go about this. The best thing is to make this clear ahead of time. State on your website or wherever you are promoting your art that you do give out licenses for commercial use. That way the copyright question might not even come up.
Many people think that a copyright is the same as a license while it’s not. Putting the words ‘commercial license’ in their mouths more often than not bypasses the whole issue.
If your client still specifically asks for the copyright, you can do the following things:

  • Explain to them that it’s a business standard to give out licenses to accommodate every need of the client, but that copyrights are not sold.
  • Refer to a website that clearly explains why copyrights are not sold. You might want to put this on your own website to look more professional.
  • Comfort them by telling them that whatever they need will be provided through a license that protects both parties.

Just always make sure that you are understanding toward your client. More often than not they don’t even know what they are talking about and they don’t realize that it’s not done to ask for the copyright of artworks.
If they are, however, and they are not a behemoth company (like explained in the next chapter) you might want to shy away from this person. More often than not they are up to no good with the art you provide.

The other side of the coin

There is a good reason for your client to ask for the copyright, especially when they are concerning long-term projects, The needs for the use of your artwork may change over time. Maybe you sold a license for only an album cover, but your client now wants to make posters of it as well, or use it on Spotify and not only as physical covers.
They will always need to get back to you and ask if this use is included in the license or if there is an additional fee.
You can partially tackle that problem by clearly outlining what your client can use the art for, but there will always be things you didn’t think of, or your client didn’t think of. And imagine that by then YOU quit illustrating and fail to pick up on their message, or simply ignore it.
It’s something that happens a lot, and your client will then end up with an illustration he or she can’t proceed with, which means they will need to hire someone else to make something different and pay for that from scratch including all the licenses.
So always be sensitive when your client asks for the copyright. They might have a good reason for it.

Exceptions to the copyright rule

There are always exceptions to the rule of not selling your copyright. I don’t know of many that apply to freelancers, other than goodwill, but there are cases, especially with large gaming or movie companies, that when you work for them they automatically own the copyrights of any works you make for them.
This has to do with NDA’s and the large amount of money that’s put into the making of games and movies like that.

You can choose to not agree with that of course, but this will usually cost you the opportunity to work with a company like that. And you might want to ask yourself if you want to miss out on that. Instead, it might be worth negotiating the opportunity to use the art you made for them in your portfolio after the NDA period expired and the game or movie is released.

Useful resources for you and your client

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