Blog / 2015 / Uncopyrighting Art and Licensing It to Companies

December 14, 2015

Many artists are interested in the idea of releasing their art from copyright, but, when they think about a big company coming along and using their art, they get stuck on ownership. Their worries can be summed up with these two questions:

“If I release my art from copyright, does that mean that a company can simply take my work and use it on a t-shirt or in an ad without paying me?”

“Is the company then the sole owner of the work? Will I be able to continue using my own art?”

These are valid concerns, but, before answering them, I’d like to point out that, even if you do claim the copyright on your art, these concerns still exist. Licensing your art to a company doesn’t actually rely on copyright. Instead, it depends on two factors:

  1. The reputation of the company and, to some extent, of the artist.
  2. The agreement signed between the parties.

I’ve talked about the reputation aspect now and again on my blog. Essentially, whether or not independent artists claim the copyright on their art, they are mostly relying on a company’s desire to appear at least a little bit virtuous in order to be paid for their work.

Could a company come along and grab your art or have some captive creative on their team remake it for them? Absolutely. But if the rip-off were discovered, they’d probably end up looking pretty bad, regardless of the copyright status of the work. Mostly, it’s easier to pay the independent artist.

As for the licensing agreement, if the company is writing it, the main thing an artist should look for is the word “exclusive” or any variations on it. If the company wants to be the only entity allowed to use an artwork, they should be paying handsomely for the privilege.

Personally, I’ve never been asked to sign over exclusive rights to my work, not even when I’ve worked with huge (and hugely self-important) institutions like the Gap and the TED organization—though TED conveniently thinks I did and even convinced YouTube I did. Exclusivity may be the usual protocol in some circles, but it’s not the norm in my experience.

If we now go back to the concerns specific to the uncopyrighter, it’s clear that the first question is covered under reputation management, as most companies will pay to avoid a mess. As for the second question, when a work is in the public domain, no user can claim a copyright on it unless they transform it and create a new work. In other words, sole ownership of or exclusivity on an artwork stems from the copyright a person is automatically assigned when they make something new or from a contract in which a creator signs over their rights to someone else.

image use for public domain

This is the sort of agreement I prefer to use when I license my art. I wrote it myself, and that is better than a company’s boilerplate contract every time, because those puppies are less like puppies and more like iron-clad attack animals meant to legally murder anyone who isn’t part of their pack.

Please note that part of what makes this agreement possible is that I put high resolution versions of my art inside my paywall. This means that anyone can use published forms of my art in any way they like and without asking, but, if they need an image that’s higher quality than what they can find on the Web, I charge for it—something that I make very clear on my (un)copyright notice page. I ask for payment for high resolution images because it adds to my income without taking away from sharing in a significant way, and also because storing and supplying those versions of my art is tedious work and getting paid to do it makes it worthwhile.

For more about the paywall, how you’re already using it, and how you might use it differently, check out this talk about freeing your art from copyright. Also, I provide a specific example of how it works here.

The Appalachian Goat

I used a version of this contract to license a drawing of a goat to the soap and lotion maker Kimberly Masters of Essential Journeys. I love not seeing a © near my name while still getting credit on each and every label!

The Appalachian Goat, Essential Journeys

Recently someone bought the lotion, loved the art enough to contact me, and ended up purchasing a print of the goat painting shown below after we had chatted a bit! In case you’re interested in doing the same, the drawing from the lotion bottle is available in my Redbubble shop and prints of the painting are here on the site.

goat and sheep artwork
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on bird’s eye piqué
19 x 23 inches

For artists who aren’t totally happy with copyright, my book about why I don’t claim the copyright on my art is worth a read. I’m also talking about some of this stuff on Thursday with the Director of VAGA Rights in a forum provided by ArtSquare.

Copyright & Copyleft Webinar
17 December
1 PM Eastern Standard Time
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