4 Major Potholes on the Road to Success in Licensing Your Art, and How to Avoid Them


The great majority of artists know nothing, or next to nothing, about the business of art licensing.

This is really not surprising because I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the B.F.A. programs and the art schools that teach anything significant to their students about how they can make money as an artist.

Knowing Nothing About the Business of Art Licensing

When you consider that most artists in America never went through a degree program in art, then there’s even less chance that they’re aware of the potholes they might encounter along the road to success in art licensing.

As a result, most artists don’t know what to do, what not to do, what to look out for and most particularly, how to read a contract.

And contracts can be the trickiest, most confusing and potentially most damaging problem area you’ll run into when licensing your art.

What Could Be Better?

Let’s suppose that you’ve sent your artwork to a company and they’ve responded that they want to license some of it for their products.

That’s pretty exciting!

After all your hard work you’re finally going to have your art available on commercial retail products, perhaps throughout the United States and maybe even Canada and other countries as well.

There’s the promise of income, whether immediately or down the road, and you feel a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

At last!  Someone who makes real commercial retail products wants your art, and wants to pay for it!  What could be better?

Let’s Look At Reality

It’s at times like these that you may feel that you’ve overcome the biggest obstacle in art licensing – you’ve connected with a licensee and they want to move ahead.

In reality, this is the time to be most cautious because the licensee is going to send you a licensing agreement, or contract, that you’ll need to sign and send back, for the license to move forward.

And unless you’re familiar with such contracts, you may miss problem areas that you won’t like at all, down the road.

Read Every Contract, Word For Word

I always advise artists to read every contract from start to finish and make totally certain they understand each and every sentence, each and every word, before they sign it.

You see, the contract will lay out the terms of your relationship with a licensee going forward, so it’s really important that you understand what they’re asking for.

There’s lots to know, but let’s just take a look at four potential problem areas having to do with your keeping control of your own artwork.

Here’s What To Look For

Towards the beginning of the contract, it will spell out what the company will be able to do with your artwork.

Read this part very carefully, because if the company wants to:

1) gain the copyright for any of your pieces of art;

2) gain full and complete reproduction rights to any of your art;

3) gain the right to sublicense your art to other companies without your having to approve and sign each specific sublicensing agreement in advance; or

4) gain full ownership of your original works of art as part of the licensing agreement, thenyou may just want to think twice about what you’re getting into.

Keep It Simple and Straightforward

What you want to license to the company should be the right to reproduce your artwork on certain products, to be sold in certain areas, for a specific combination of flat fee and/or royalty, for a specific period of time.

End of story.

Never Sign Away Your Copyrights!

They shouldn’t gain the copyright to your art because then you’ll have lost control of it.

In fact, you may not even own your art anymore and may not be able to reproduce it yourself.

If they gain ‘full and complete reproduction rights’ to the art, that amounts to much the same thing.

They’ll be able to do whatever they wish with the art, without your prior approval.

Watch Out For Sub-Licensing

If you grant them the right to “sub-license” the artwork to other companies, then they’ll control future use of your art and may or may not give you any of the income they derive from these sub-licenses, or even tell you about them.

Imagine going into a store, seeing your artwork on products from a company you don’t know, and having it all be totally legal because you signed away the right to control future use of your artwork.

Never Agree to Assign Your Rights

And if they ask for an assignment of copyright, then you’ve lost your art forever.

I’ve actually seen contracts where companies demand a transfer, or assignment, of copyright as a necessary condition for the license to move forward.

This is what’s called a “buy-out” and you want to avoid it, or at minimum, know that you’ll never control your artwork again.

Or they’ll say, “No, we’re not asking for your copyright, we just want full reproduction rights.”


Here’s What It Means

“copyright” in its simplest terms is the right to copy, or reproduce, a creative work like a painting or a book or an article.

“Unlimited reproduction rights” side-steps the legal copyright rights and essentially gives other people the right to copy your work wherever and whenever they choose.

To repeat, all you want to do in an art licensing agreement is to allow the company to use specific pieces of art for specific products, to be sold in specific countries or regions, for a specific period of time and for a specified amount of money or royalty based on sales. 

When a company asks for anything more, question that, ask them what it means and if you don’t want to go there, then just walk away.

Don’t let this stop you from promoting your art for license!

Most companies are quite reputable and many contracts are completely understandable by the average person.

Just make sure you take the time to read and understand every word, and know what it means, and be sure to avoid the potholes listed above, and you’ll do just fine.

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(c) Lance J. Klass.  All Rights Reserved.  This article may not be reproduced with the expressed written permission of the author. 

For information about copying all or part of this article, contact the author atart@porterfieldsfineart.com.

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