Work for Hire – Just Say No

I think it’s safe to say that artists as a whole are generally considered a little “different”, and rightly so. We tend to fit the clichés of coloring outside the lines and thinking outside the box. We also tend to be gluttons for attention, we want our work to be seen and appreciated and are often willing to bend over backwards to achieve that. This is especially true of young artists fresh from art school or otherwise taking their first steps into the world of business, and the crossing of that “sacred line” into being “Professional Artists”. We need and crave that exposure and those experiences. Yep, we’re attention whores.

On the other side of those metaphorical tracks are the people who like and want what we do, and are willing to take a chance on us and get our work out there to a wider audience. That’s great, when an artist finds an outlet like that it can be a perfect and mutually beneficial partnership, ideally one that’s based on an accompanying mutual respect, it can also be a great stepping stone on an artist’s evolutionary path.

Unfortunately there are also a lot of people out there looking for an “artist” who really don’t understand that whole “mutual respect” thing, either through naiveté or to put it bluntly because sometimes they’re just assholes. There’s often a perception among these people that since artists actually enjoy what they do that it’s basically just “play” and therefore not really worth paying for or giving proper credit to.

Here’s an experience that I’ve had many times: Someone decides one day that they can write the perfect children’s book, it’s all in their head and they’ve got the text down on paper (Well okay, probably a Word file but you get the idea). Now they just need someone to take those pictures in their head and bring them into a state where everyone can see them, bring them to life essentially. So they want to hire an artist to make “their” pictures. They need someone with the skill and talent to be able to do this, they essentially need a co-creator.

Now here’s where the tricky part comes in. Who “owns” those images? The person with the original concept or the one who had the skill to create them? Ideally the answer is somewhere in the middle. This is why, if one looks at the publishing credits of pretty much any reputable children’s book, one should find two copyright credits there, one being “text © (insert author’s name)” and the other being  “illustrations © (illustrator’s name)”. There are exceptions to this of course, particularly when dealing with the depictions of trademarked characters, etc. anything by Disney for example.

Now going back to the previous paragraph’s thought, if someone comes at you, however well-intentioned (or not) they may be, and does not intend to share the legal credit for your work, the creation of the imagery, this is what’s called “Work For Hire”. And it’s a trap that many artists fall into early in their careers, and sometimes later on too. What it indicates is either a lack of understanding or a lack of respect for the artist. If it’s the former, it can be explained to them. If it’s the latter, my advice would be to run like hell from that person, they are basically just using you.

And here’s a point that you will hear me stating repeatedly: Make sure that you have a written contract. It just makes good business sense. It’s important to have all of the various expectations from both parties spelled out before the work is done. And don’t do it over the phone, you may need to refer back to it later. It’s also a very good idea to keep any email correspondence between both parties. In fact I just recently had a situation in which I was contacted by an author who was so eager to get started that in addition to sending the manuscript and dozens of pages of reference material, also paid the 50% down payment before the contract was even written. When we did get down to the contract and I made it clear that I don’t do work for hire (even though I had stated this early on in our email conversations, said author suddenly pulled the plug and demanded their money back, end of story. I was actually quite frankly relieved because there are some clients that are really more trouble than they are worth. This occasionally becomes apparent gradually rather than as a first impression, though in this case I had an initial gut-level reaction that I really should have followed, it would have saved me some grief down the road. Pay attention to those gut-level first impressions, they are more often than not correct.

So go do what you do best, just remember to stand up for yourself as well.